Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1301, (23 - 29 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The institutions we trust

Pundits see the primacy of the military in developing countries as a sign of backwardness. Yet in America too the military has a special place, writes Mohamed Salmawy

Al-Ahram Weekly

What is the relationship, in any society, between the army and its population? The annals of history testify to the exalted place armies have occupied in the histories of nations since prehistoric eras.

Ancient Egyptian chronicles speak of the victories of the army of Ramses II in the battle of Qadesh in 1274 BC as the greatest achievement of a pharaoh who built temples and civilisation. A thousand years after Ramses II, the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang, could not move on to the afterlife until an entire army of terracotta warriors were stationed in his mausoleum complex. A couple of centuries later, the Romans would begin to immortalise the victories of their armies in eloquent military chronicles, triumphal arches and friezes on monumental columns.

Some believe that the progress of nations and their systems of government proceed in an inverse ratio to the size of the position their armies occupy in society. They argue that in modern democracies the army has no place of note in people’s lives while the reverse is the case in societies where democratic political life has not matured. Is this true?

I have in front of me the results of a poll conducted by Gallup, the largest research and polling company in the US, on the level of the American public’s confidence in various government institutions today as compared to a decade ago. The results of this poll, which may be the most important survey Gallop has done in years, confirm what may be a little-known fact.

The institution that enjoys the highest degree of public confidence among average American citizens is the army and this confidence has not been shaken at all during the last 10 years. One of the implications of this is that this confidence is not the product of transient circumstances that vary from one year to the next but rather of certain constants that remain immutable regardless of political winds and changing administrations.

Whereas public confidence in Congress, for example, plunged from 19 per cent in 2006 to only nine per cent this year, confidence in the army remained stable, at 73 per cent, during the past 10 years. Moreover, in this poll, the army maintains a considerable lead over other institutions.

The second ranking is the police, whose confidence rating fell slightly from 57 per cent in 2006 to 56 per cent in 2016. Taking other examples as we proceed from the top down, the “Church or organised religion” fell from 52 per cent to 41 per cent during the same period, the presidency rose from 33 to 36 per cent and, in the realm of the media, television news plummeted 10 points from 31 to 21 per cent and newspapers took a similar plunge from 30 to 20 per cent.

What does all this signify? The top figure in that poll tells us without a shadow of a doubt that US society, in spite of its democratic system, accords a special status to its military establishment and that its confidence in that establishment has remained firm despite changes in political administrations.

This is all the more remarkable given that the Republican administration that was in power in 2006 was totally different from the Democratic administration that is currently in power. In 2006, when George Bush Jr was halfway through his second term, there prevailed a general resentment towards government due to the war in Iraq and economic stagnation at the time. In short, the Bush presidency has been ranked the least popular presidency in US history.

It is important to note here that a main source of American wrath against Bush and his policies was the war in Iraq, which was directly connected to the military establishment. Yet the American people’s confidence in that establishment has remained constant despite its invasion of Iraq, which Americans now regard as a black mark on their history.

In other words, somehow the American general consciousness drew a line between their confidence in the army and the policies that the army carried out. This has enabled the army in the US to occupy a status in the American consciousness that is immune to political vicissitudes and that is not influenced by political party moods or affiliations.

The results of this important survey also indicate that the special status accorded to the military establishment in any country is not remotely connected to whether or not a society is democratic. Some rank the US among the foremost democracies in the world, yet the American people give their highest marks of confidence to the army over all other institutions while their elected representative assembly (Congress) comes in at the tail end of the institutions listed in the survey.

In other words, the American people have less confidence in the most major institution in their political life than they do in their armed forces. If these results had appeared in a survey conducted not in the US but in some non-democratic Third World country they would have immediately been read by some who do not see beyond superficialities as proof of the backwardness of the political system in that country.

According to the same Gallup survey, public confidence in the US Supreme Court (roughly the equivalent to the Supreme Constitutional Court in Egypt) fell from 40 per cent in 2006 to 36 per cent in 2016 while confidence in the criminal justice system, which was only 25 per cent in 2006, dropped to 23 per cent during the same period.

Taken together, these are very low confidence ratings for a country that vaunts institutionalised government, venerates its judiciary and guarantees judicial autonomy. Again, such ratings in a developing nation would be interpreted as a sign of the weakness of its judicial system.

Finally, there is the relatively high degree of confidence accorded to the “Church and organised religion” in the US. Although the rating fell from 52 per cent in 2006 to 41 per cent this year, it nevertheless tells us that faith in religion is not an exclusive property of developing societies.

With this article, I have tried to analyse the results of this important poll in terms of their significance with respect to US society. It is now up to readers to deduce their implications as they apply to our society, independently from the sophistry of some know-it-alls who know nothing of the world abroad.

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