Fear, Loathing & the Crisis of Confidence

Just a few weeks ago, Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University released a little-noticed study showing that one-third of Americans now "believe in a broad smorgasbord of conspiracy theories" revolving around government complicity in everything from the 9/11 attacks to the Kennedy assassination. The same survey last year found that "anger against the federal government is at record levels."

It would be easy to chalk up these troubling findings to the unending propaganda of fear. America has been experiencing the searing blast of politicized terror warnings and breaking news graphics for the better part of six years now, and populations living under such constant government and media shock treatment can go a wee bit berserk.

But while many of these conspiracy theories are offensive and factually unsupported, the underlying paranoia and loathing are not surprising, and the feelings are not motivated merely by a fear of the next bogeyman around the corner. The sentiments are symptoms of a deep crisis of confidence in our public institutions -- a crisis that is a predictable reaction to a government that now all but admits it breaks laws, hides information and disregards the public.

We have seen troops sent to war based on manipulated intelligence. We have discovered phones wiretapped without warrants. Just last week, we found out the CIA destroyed tapes of potentially illegal torture sessions. So many scandals now plague the government, it is hard to remember them all. And they have all happened with almost no consequences for the perpetrators.

Nonetheless, every era has its sensational scandals, and so it is probably the mundane that has heated the public's low-grade disgust into a simmering boil. After all, what we see our government and our representatives quietly do every day tells us far more than even the headline-grabbing controversies.

Industries essentially bribe politicians with campaign contributions. Government employees regularly move into six-figure jobs lobbying for the industries they once regulated. Presidential candidates of both parties take time off from their small-town stump speeches about the middle class to hold big corporate fundraisers in New York penthouses and D.C. law firms. All of it is legal and treated as ho-hum by the media.

Then there is the bureaucracy, the faceless monolith whose civil service protections and multiyear appointment terms were supposed to prevent it from becoming what it is today: an increasingly important cog in the corrupt machine.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides perhaps the most pristine example of all. In October, the General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that this faceless alphabet-soup agency tasked with regulating the media business now regularly leaks secret information to lobbyists before that information is released to the public. The behavior undoubtedly feeds into the world of "political intelligence" -- a burgeoning cottage industry in Washington whereby well-heeled lobbyists gather inside government information for their corporate clients.

A federal agency that even mildly cared about trying to serve the public or follow the law would react to the GAO's damning report by at least pretending to change. Instead, the FCC dug in.

When lobbyists recently pushed the government to relax ownership regulations and allow for further media consolidation, FCC chairman Kevin Martin provided just one week's notice for a required public hearing on the issue. Officially, the FCC held the hearing to consider public input about the proposed rule change. But Martin later told Congress that before the hearing ever happened he was already putting the finishing touches on his New York Times op-ed formally endorsing the media consolidation plan. And surprise! This week, the FCC officially ratified Martin's deregulation scheme, making it the law of the land.

Like so much of our government's behavior these days, it was kabuki theater at its most obscene -- an obscure yet powerful agency getting caught leaking profit-making secrets to lobbyists, and then telling the public its hearings are all a put-on, taking place well after the corrupt deals have already been cut.

In Scripps Howard's report on its poll findings, some experts expressed astonishment at the anger being expressed by the country. But really, we should be baffled if public opinion were any different. Considering what's going on, is anyone actually stunned that America is enraged? Is anyone really confused about why so many believe the government conspires against the public?

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