Well, this explains a few things about our current politics — or maybe politics in general. Tomorrow will mark the fortieth anniversary of the only presidential resignation in American history, when Richard Nixon stepped down rather than face impeachment and removal over the abuses of power uncovered in the Watergate scandal. Back then, those abuses shocked the nation, especially after the White House tapes showed Nixon himself deeply involved in them. These days, nearly half of all Americans think of it as business as usual:
Forty-six percent of people believe the events leading up to the resignation of President Nixon were “just politics,” according to a new poll that coincides with the 40th anniversary of his stepping down.
The CNN poll found a narrow majority, 51 percent, believe the Watergate scandal was a serious matter, while slightly less describe it as the kind of thing in which both parties engage.
Or maybe that’s business as usual:
Those numbers have been relatively constant over the last three decades. When the question was asked in 1982 — eight years after Nixon resigned — 52 percent said it was a very serious matter, while 45 percent described it as just politics.
That’s been a remarkably stable outcome, actually, over the last 32 years of polling on the question. The results have ranged from 52/44 to 49/46, within the margins of error. The most recent result was in 2002 on the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and it was 51/42.
One common thought about the legacy of Watergate was the erosion of trust in the institutions of self-governance, but the trend lines in polling show that erosion started well before Watergate. It seems almost quaint now, but in 1958, 73% of people trusted government in Washington all (16%) or most (57%) of the time. Even as late as 1966, 65% said the same thing (17/48), but by 1968 (61%, 7/54) that began to shift, thanks most likely to the Vietnam War. By 1972, when the break-in took place but before it became a national scandal, trust had dropped to 53% (5/48), and then dropped sharply again in 1974 (36%, 2/34), with sustained majorities in the “some” category ever since. The only exception to that came four weeks after 9/11, when trust in government surged ever so briefly (60%, 13/47).
Today? It’s 13% (1/12) with 76% saying “some” and 10% “never,” the first time in the series that “never” has reached double digits. Just before Barack Obama took office, the trust figure was 25% (3/22). Big business gets slightly more trust than Washington at 17% (1/16), but it’s within the MOE of the government figure.
The demographics on the Watergate question are remarkable for their consistency. Republicans (51%) and Democrats (58%) both tend to think of it as a serious matter, but a slim majority of independents (51%) say it was politics as usual. Younger voters also tend to dismiss it (44/52), while all other age demos fall in line with the overall results.
The familiarity of these events, coupled with the increasing impulse of Obama to abandon constitutional limits, shows that America largely ignored the lessons of Watergate. It’s not enough to be wary of executive power when the opposition party controls the White House, as Republicans belatedly learned in 1974; to defend and protect constitutional government and the rule of law, that vigilance has to exist at all times.
Some of the same voices that shrieked with horror at the threat of the “unitary executive” under George W. Bush seem perfectly comfortable now with Obama ruling by executive fiat rather than governing under the rule of law, as long as it’s only their bêtes noires that get targeted.
Maybe it is business as usual after all.