Who Has Too Much Power in America?

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A majority of people surveyed say lobbyists, corporations, financial institutions, and the federal government. Unions are relatively untrusted too. And that sounds about right to me.
 

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After examining the above chart, Kevin Drum writes:

So here's the latest Gallup poll, asking people whether various groups have "too much power." The funny thing about it is that Americans apparently think that everyone has too much power: Churches and the military manage to escape the "too much power" box largely thanks to support from huge numbers of Republicans. Labor unions and the federal government go the opposite way, but Democrats don't support them enough to keep their overall numbers from being pretty dismal. Lobbyists, banks, and corporations come in for mostly bipartisan abuse.

Roughly speaking, I'd say that this poll doesn't tell us much aside from the fact that American political beliefs are fairly incoherent. But we knew that already. Beyond that, an awful lot of Americans apparently feel that they themselves have no voice to speak of, which must mean that everybody else has too much. And they might be right.

My interpretation is different.

That column on the far right is misleading. Gallup does a far better job describing the results in prose on its Web site:

Lobbyists, major corporations, banks, and the federal government all have too much power, according to Americans. By contrast, the public largely believes state and local governments, the legal system, organized religion, and the military each have the right amount of power or too little power. Labor unions elicit mixed responses, with the plurality saying they have too much power, but a slim majority saying their power is about right or lacking.

Contra Drum, I don't think these results suggest incoherence in the political views of Americans. But perhaps I'm biased. It so happens that I largely agree with the majority of respondents.

Here's my take on the categories:

Lobbyists - they've got far too much power.

Major corporations - after the financial bailout, the GM rescue, several generations of the military industrial complex, and regulatory capture gone wild, it's my belief that large corporations wield excessive power too.

Banks and financial institutions - It still beggars belief that Goldman Sachs was made whole on its financial crisis losses. I know Drum is with me on this one, so I won't elaborate.

The federal government in Washington DC - Warrantless wiretapping, holding Bradley Manning naked in solitary confinement when he hasn't been tried or convicted of anything, indefinite detention, the DEA, the Defense of Marriage Act, prohibitions on medical marijuana, No Child Left Behind. I could go on all day.

Labor unions - Since I think it should be easier than this to fire bad teachers, that prison guard unions have brought about an explosion in jail construction and incarceration, that ludicrous work rules helped destroy GM, and that public safety unions have arranged it so that their members can radically inflate their pensions by working overtime in the last year of their contracts, this one seems like a yes.

The government in your state - This one is tougher to answer. I wish California had more power to set its own policy on issues like medical marijuana, euthanasia, and gay marriage. As a civil libertarian, there are other aspects of state power that grate on me, or that I wish were left to localities. Then again, I wish transportation planning were more regional. And insofar as the ballot initiative process as constrained the ability of state legislators to flexibly budget, I'd transfer some power away from the people. Overall it's a mixed bag, and although it doesn't capture my exact view, I guess I'd have answered "about right" or "don't know."

The courts, legal system, and judges - Another tough one. Sometimes I think judges go too far in legislating from the bench. And the legal system is rife with prosecutorial abuses, as Radley Balko so often points out. I wish this judge had less power. But I also think judges should have power to review wiretap orders, or whether someone is actually an enemy combatant, and I would do away with mandatory minimums, returning more discretion to judges.

Organized religion and churches - I think Scientology and other cults have too much power over their members. But generally I don't think religions or churches wield very much formal power. And that's the way I like it.

The municipal government where you live - If I resided in Irvine, where Drum lives, I'd go crazy not being able to paint my house certain colors or put up a basketball hoop in my driveway. But I don't live there. I voted with my feet. And while I'm sure I'd change all kinds of municipal laws if given the opportunity (really, I can't drink a beer on the beach at sunset?) my libertarian streak is mitigated by the knowledge that if I really wanted to I could launch a meaningful bid to change things, and have a decent chance of success assuming a decent number of people agreed with me.

All in all, it seems like my answers - rendered in the answers offered in the survey - track the American majority opinion pretty closely, though obviously everyone's particular reasoning is going to differ a lot. But does Drum find something incoherent about my mix of views? He's a smart guy. If so, I'd like to know what.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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