For president, authority must come with trust
In one episode of the superb television show “Breaking Bad,” antihero Walter White douses tens of thousands of dollars with lighter fluid and sets it ablaze.
He was overcome with remorse for the terrible costs of his own greed. Then he quickly comes to his senses and dumps the grill into his swimming pool. Behold the power of cash.
We crave it, even though it is only paper. The source of its hold over any one of us is the simple fact that everyone else thinks that it is valuable. That is the secret of what political scientists call authority. This piece of paper or that person has a special status just because others recognize that status. Authority is a mere product of human psychology, weightless and intangible. It is the very substance of government. If you don’t believe me, ask someone who sat on a pile of Confederate money while watching General Lee pull the remnants of his army out of Richmond.
Authority relies on power, but it is founded on trust. No government can long survive unless substantial parts of a society are willing to support it. That support depends on some confidence that the government will secure their rights and interests. When that confidence begins to fail, the government is in crisis.
This is what has happened in recent days in two very different countries. In Brazil, the trouble began with protests over a rise in bus fares. In Turkey, the crowds showed up to protest the closing of a public park. In both cases, the initial causes of unrest were forgotten as thousands poured into the streets. Neither government is in danger of falling, but both are now suffering a crisis of confidence.
President Barack Obama does not have to worry about masses assembling in the streets. He is nonetheless suffering from a loss of trust. When we learned recently that the National Security Agency was collecting massive records of phone calls made by all Americans, including who called whom and when, it quickly acquired the status of a scandal.
Many on the left felt betrayed. Most Americans were ambivalent. We can understand that investigators might need to search phone records, especially if some terrorist mischief is afoot or has already occurred. We need to trust, however, that such powers will not be abused.
That is why the IRS scandal is so important. It is clear that agents of the Internal Revenue Service used their powers to discriminate against and harass conservative political organizations. It doesn’t matter whether the president knew about or had any hand in this. As chief executive, he is responsible by definition. Such an abuse of the police powers eats away at the trust that our security agencies depend on, if they want to depend on our cooperation and support.
The White House enjoys a repository of trust that goes back more than two centuries. Obama should not take that for granted. It is hard to build such trust and easy to lose it.
Kenneth C. Blanchard Jr. is a professor of political science at NSU. Write to him at email@example.com. The views presented are his and do not represent Northern State University.