We love the Constitution yet hate our government. The past tells us why.

Summary:  The pasts of other nations provide insights into the problems of America today, free lessons of what works and what fails. Some pasts are more relevant than most. Some are more disturbing. Some are both; these are the ones that deserve your attention.

The Hitler Myth

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As discussed here previously, NAZI Germany was the first nation to break from traditional modes of western society into modernity. During and after WW2 the West followed Germany into a world with a new morality, plus new physical and political technology.  Although we recoil from direct comparison to NAZIs, we seldom feel uncomfortable from the aspects we have in common. Perhaps we should.

Excerpt from “The Good Tsar Bias

By Xavier Marquez
Prof Political Science, Victoria University of Wellington

At his website, 16 July 2014
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Ian Kershaw’s remarkable book The “Hitler Myth”: Image and Reality in the Third Reich {see Wikipedia} is a really clever piece of public opinion archeology. It attempts to reconstruct the rise and fall of Hitler’s popularity in Nazi Germany, drawing primarily on secret reports compiled by the Gestapo, the Security Service of the SS, and the clandestine agents of the banned Social Democratic Party.

…Among other things, the book makes the case that, at least until the war started turning sour in late 1942, Hitler was far more popular than the Nazi Party, which quickly grew to be disliked, even despised, by the vast majority of Germans,  despite the initial improvement in economic conditions they experienced in the early years of the Third Reich:

At the centre of our enquiry here is the remarkable phenomenon that Hitler’s rising popularity was not only unaccompanied by a growth in the popularity of the Nazi Party, but in fact developed in some ways at the direct expense of his own Movement.

In Kershaw’s telling, the contrast arose primarily from the fact that the “little Hitlers” (as Party functionaries were sometimes derogatorily called) were constantly encountered in everyday life, where they were perceived, not without ample justification, as corrupt and overbearing, while Hitler operated on a “higher” plane, concerned with the “big questions” of war and peace.

America has no Leader as the foundation of our political regime. But the dynamics Kershaw describes might explain the largest anomaly of modern American politics: we revere the Constitution — increasingly so, if the Tea Party is representative — but have low and falling confidence in the Republic’s political institutions. From Gallup’s 2014 Confidence in Institutions poll:

  • Supreme Court:…….30%
  • Presidency:…………..29%
  • Congress:……………..07%
  • executive agencies:..???   (most probably rate very low)

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Responsibility
We should all wear these, all the time. We need reminding.

Perhaps we’ve evolved a dynamic similar to that Kershaw describes. We demand much of our Regime: good infrastructure, efficient government services, strong defense (military supremacy over all other nations), protecting the borders against immigrants, subsidies (eg., mortgage interest deduction, farming subsidies), low taxes, etc. We don’t get what we feel we deserve. So we venerate the Constitution while feeling contempt for the institutions that run the Republic. They’re “corrupt and overbearing”.

This allows us to combine support for our political regime (America, the Constitution) with alienation from the actual system. It’s a common psychological mechanism. In America the ultimate sources of leadership are the Constitution and “we the people”. Change the names and Kershaw’s analysis explains how this works.

The “good Tsar” bias does not incline people to say that the world is just, or to rationalize injustice as somehow deserved, only to deny that those leaders who are closely tied to the symbols of the nation (the Tsar, the Führer, the King, etc.) bear responsibility for bad outcomes in everyday life; that responsibility, instead, is assigned to subordinates.

Every American knows is that no matter how badly our government functions, neither the Constitution or us (the people) have any responsibility. We need not ask if a parliamentary system — like almost everybody else uses (few are so foolish as to imitate our system) — works better. We certainly need not ask if we bear any responsibility, or if our apathy affects America.

Kershaw’s theory works on a more detailed level as well. Bush Jr was a great man to the GOP and Hitler to the Democrats. Obama is a great man to the Democrats and a foreign Muslim traitor to the GOP. Hatred by opponents is understandable. However, both were (are) remarkably flawed leaders by the standards of their own parties. What accounts for this esteem for a leader while aware of his misgovernment?

… I propose to call it “the good Tsar bias,” for the proverbial attitude of ordinary Russians to the Tsar in contrast to his ministers before the revolution. (Whether ordinary Russians actually held this attitude is a different question — looking around lazily, I can only find one good reference, in W. Bruce Lincoln’s Sunlight at Midnight — but the belief that they did was already proverbial in the 1930s. Even the Security Service of the SS made reference to the “good tsar” idea to account for the widespread finding of their public opinion researchers that people hated the Nazi party, but did not blame Hitler for their everyday woes; Kershaw quotes a report from them that claims that before WWI in Russia people used to explain their dissatisfaction with the government by saying that “Father Tsar knows nothing of it, he would not wish or tolerate it” before going on to warn that “Russia’s fate proves this principle is dangerous”)

The bias comes from the failure to notice that, as Brad Delong used to say, “the cossacks work for the Tsar”; some cognitive or emotional dissonance management mechanism prevents people from acknowledging connections between the proximate and the more remote causal agents of their dissatisfaction that, in retrospect, seem obvious. After all, why, if the leader is so good, does he surround himself with such poor collaborators?

Conclusion

We’ve adopted many bad habits that were found in NAZI Germany. That doesn’t mean we are like them, or that we will become like them, or that we’ll come to a similar bad end. But we should worry about the similarities.  Awareness of the “man in the mirror” might provide the spark we need to start on the long road to reform.

For More Information

Posts mentioned here. I recommend reading them!

  1. How we became what we are today. See some dark origins of the New America., 23 July 2013
  2. Gallup warns us to prepare for fascism!, 21 June 2014

Posts discussing these issues:

  1. Politics in America
  2. Obama, his administration and policies
  3. Reforming America: steps to political change

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7 thoughts on “We love the Constitution yet hate our government. The past tells us why.

  1. FM,
    Thank you for sharing how the ‘good tsar’ framework applies to us. It is one of the best diagnostics of our situation that I have seen in a while. I like it because inherent in the diagnostic are some practical solutions. Namely, getting out of a mindset of shifting blame. For me this means pointing out to myself and others how ironic it is that we enshrine our constitution while at the same disparaging of the system whose existence has been facilitated by that document.

    – Pastor Ames

    btw is there a typo about the democrats in your paragraph towards the bottom, regarding how the ‘great man’ applies to different segments like the Republicans, the Nazi’s, and the Democrats?

    1. Pastor Ames,

      Thank you for the feedback.

      Posts about politics get hits only if they follow the required good guy – bad guy format. “We great; others evil! Grunt Grunt!” Posts discussing traits common to both Left and Right in America — dynamics imo of the greatest importance to understand — are an anathema to both sides.

      Also: I don’t see the typo. I’m not good at proofreading.

  2. In the case of Barack Obama I do not belive the “Good Tsar” analogy applies. Case in point, the rollout of “Obama Care”, tThese two rampshe four years leading up to the implementation provideed numerous warnings both public and private regarding the endeavor, these were disregarded at the presidential level. The”Littke Hitler” in this case Kathleen Sebilius mismanagement of resources, time and personnel borders on the criminal given the costs associated with the ACA, the recent GAO report on the subject confirms this.

    Another example of “Little Hitlers” is the developing IRS scandal which are now putting Lois Lerner in her own Brown Shirt. These two, and there’s more are completely avoidable in this day and age by presidents who care about the job their entrusted with..

    1. Dick,

      “by presidents who care about the job their entrusted with..”

      I don’t understand. Neither of the events you describe are in any way unusual. Similar examples can be found for every past President.

      The point of the analogy is not that such things happen, but that when Bush Jr “did” them Republicans defended him. When Obama “did” them, Democrats defended him. In neither case did most Americans care.

      Also, I find astonishing your assumption that a President who “cared” could faultlessly both set policy for the vast range of domestic and foreign matters, but also effectively supervise the unimaginably vast Federal bureaucracy. I’ve run tiny organizations (a small business, a Boy Scout Troop) and I doubt I could meet your expected standard of performance.

  3. “We love the Constitution”–I suspect what Americans really love is the Bill of Rights plus the other amendments that protect and expand the rights of the people, such as the 14th Amendment. I don’t think anyone other than wonks, historians, and lawyers is in love with most of the clauses that actually spell out how our government works, thus the disconnect.

    1. Neon,

      I think the data is clear that most Americans have little idea what’s in the Constitution. It’s a fetish object, or totem.

      Per the classic freshman pol science exercise: ask people to sign petition for Americans to have Rights (list those in the Bill of a rights). Difficult to get signatures.

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