You know respect for authority is too high when people start complaining that no one respects authority anymore. Obviously, this rule doesn’t apply to authority figures themselves. From principals to police chiefs, professional authorities spend their lives astonished by the rate of public disobedience. But ordinary Americans shouldn’t think that way. Once Curt Schilling can get a job at Breitbart or Donald Trump can win in Arizona by saying people don’t appreciate cops, you know things have gotten out of hand. Sure enough, Gallup has released a new poll in which the portion of Americans who express “a great deal of respect for the police” has reached 76%, up 12 points from last year. I think we can agree that’s way too high.
I’m not saying we should all be out there committing crimes, but we ought to identify with the criminal class. For one thing, the United States imprisons more people per capita than any other nation, including China and North Korea. Maybe we’re just lively people. It’s pleasing to think Americans go to jail more because our frontier tradition encourages us to hoot, shoot, and tell the troot. But this poll suggests the opposite is true. If the police state were our fault and not the state’s, we would disdain it. Three out of four rugged individualists do not love the cops.
The simpler explanation for America’s high rate of respect for police is authoritarianism. It’s hard to know when we started calling every cop a hero, but by my calculations, it happened sometime between September 10 and September 12, 2001. Our fear that something like that might happen again convinced us to give cops more authority. Fifteen years later, an American version of Mussolini has the Republican nomination for president.
This is exactly the kind of totalizing theory I like, because it A) casts me in the righteous minority of a society gone mad and B) requires no further research. But as usual, the data is a pain in the ass. It turns out that respect for police fell to a 22-year low in the same poll last year. It’s hard to attribute this year’s numbers to a broad trend toward authoritarianism when they were so different in 2015. What’s worse—for our pleasing theory, at least—is that this year’s rebound finds respect for police peaking just below the record set in 1967. Reasonable people can disagree, but I don’t think of the late sixties as a time of peak respect for authority in the United States.
A lot of people did get shot that year, though. Similarly, Gallup notes that during this recent surge in respect for cops, “the increase in shootings of police coincided with high-profile incidents of law enforcement officials shooting and killing unarmed black men.” Perhaps we are looking at two phenomena in combination: sympathy for police killed in the line of duty and psychological reactance against movements like Black Lives Matter.
For example, maybe people learned about BLM from Fox News and doubled down on “cops are heroes” because they thought they were under siege. But if this kind of psychological reactance were a factor, we might also expect to see a concomitant increase in the number of respondents who expressed “hardly any” respect for police. Yet this number has steadily declined since its peak in 2005, with a little jump last year corrected by a big drop in 2016.
Maybe the simplest explanation is the correct one: the more people get shot, the more people love cops. Unarmed black children, cops themselves—it doesn’t matter. As long as somebody dies in the process of law enforcement, America loves police more. This principle might hold across all fields of authority: war makes people love their government, arson makes people love the fire department, birthday parties make us side with the management at Chuck E. Cheese, et cetera. Perhaps the conventional wisdom about authority is correct: people love it in times of crisis.
If that hypothesis is correct, this poll might really say that this year, Americans regard ourselves as particularly endangered. Maybe 2016 is like 1967 both our love of cops and our general anxiety. We have the sense that something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear, but we’d better stop, hear a sound, get scared and call the police.