I’ve been mulling over a Gallup Poll that came out this week on who has too much power. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that majorities of Americans think that the following three groups have too much power: lobbyists (71 percent); major corporations (67 percent), banks and financial institutions (67 percent). The assessments are remarkably bipartisan.
But the poll also reflects a broader distrust of power in institutions generally, and poses a challenging puzzle: how do you reduce the power of one set of institutions without raising the power of another set of institutions with potentially opposing interests? My view is that you can’t, and Americans need to face up to that sooner or later.
First off, it’s worth noting that the poll results are nothing new. If you look at National Elections Studies polling, you’ll find that since the mid-1980s, solid majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents (65-70 percent) have been convinced that government is run for the benefit of a few big interests, with the one exception being that for a few brief years under George W. Bush (2002 and 2004), only about 40 percent of Republicans thought this way.
Arguably, one of the reasons that corporations appear to have so much power is that they are incredibly well-represented in Washington by lobbyists. I’ve calculated that for every one lobbyist representing a union or public interest group, there are now 16 lobbyists representing business interests, up from about a 12-to-1 ratio in 1981 (still pretty high). Of course, this conflates the power of corporations and lobbyists, and banks are a subset of corporations. However, I think it’s a fair conflation.
But the thing about power is that it’s relative. In a Madisonian view of American democracy, the most effective way to deal with powerful “factions” (Madison’s term for special interests) is to empower other factions that have opposed interests, in the hope that out of the rough-and-tumble clash, something that resembles the public interest can emerge. Madison’s alternative would be to try to eliminate the power of one institution by stripping it of its rights to participate in the political process, which he rightly called this approach a “remedy…worse than the disease.”
So, if you think corporations, banks, and the lobbyists who represent them have too much power, following this logic means you need to empower another institution that could reasonably go head-to-head with these organizations, and in the process help to produce a better compromise outcome.
But here’s the thing about the American people: they’re skeptical of power from any institution. Gallup also asked whether various institutions in society didn’t have enough power. The organization that most frequently came up as having not enough power was the military, which is actually a bit frightening. But only 28 percent of respondents thought this. Other institutions that came close were unions (24 percent) and organized religion and churches (24 percent as well)
Unions, of course, are the most likely candidate to go head-to-head with corporations, but predictably, Republicans don’t like unions (69 percent they have too much power, 10 percent not enough); Democrats are more favorable to Unions (only 20 percent say the have too much power, as compared to 39 percent who think they don’t have enough.)
The federal government might also have the ability to go head-to-head with corporations and their lobbyists, if one believes the government is capable of acting as an independent entity. But not surprisingly, 75 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of independents think government has too much power, compared to just 34 percent of Democrats. Usually independents fall somewhere between the two parties on a given issue, so that fact that they are so strongly worried about the power of government should be a troubling sign for Democrats. Still, only 18 percent of Democrats (and 7 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Independents) want to give federal government more power.
In many ways, the Tea Party Republicans share the same hopeful faith of Brandeis liberals of a century ago: that somehow we can return to an idealized America of small, local institutions, and thus avoid the concentration of economic power that inevitably leads to political power. (Of course, it’s worth noting that Republicans didn’t exactly jump on an amendment to limit the size of big banks when it was offered last year to the Dodd-Frank Bill.)
The reality remains that until we come up with reasonable ways to offer countervailing forces to balance out the influence that large corporations and their lobbyists have in Washington, the “too much power” numbers will remain high, as will the perception that Washington is only working for a few big interests. Unions may not be the right way to do this, and expanding the government may not be the right way to do this either. But we ought to come up with something smarter than nostalgically hoping for a return to some Edenic past.