Americans' confidence in Congress is at a historic low point, according to results of a Gallup poll released Thursday. Only 14 percent of Americans surveyed said they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress.
That is the lowest confidence level recorded in the history of Gallup polling on that institution, going back to 1973. The previous low was 18 percent in 1991, 1993 and 1994. Those happen to be the last years before the present that the Democrats controlled both chambers – and in 1991 there was also a Republican named George Bush in the White House.
Nevertheless, someone surveying the current political landscape could very well be surprised by that 14 percent. It seems far too high. Where, he might wonder, did Gallup find any Americans actually confident in Congress? One assumes they're not all lobbyists. Has Gallup penetrated the vaunted "shadows" wherein all those "undocumented Americans" (to use the euphemism of the year) are squirreled away awaiting the latest amnesty thaw?
No, that's not it. In this great country, you can find a handful of people who hold onto just about any fatuous belief, be it that Elvis is alive, lucky numbers are real, or Congress is trustworthy. What's really interesting is how the 14 percent who admit to confidence in Congress (perhaps via displaced Santa Clausism) compare in numbers with holders of other beliefs. Some examples:
* Thirty percent of Americans believe in UFOs, agreeing that "some of the unidentified flying objects that are reported are really space vehicles from other civilizations," according to a 2001 survey by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
* Thirty-one percent of Americans believe that astrology — which holds that the alignment of celestial bodies actually affects people's destinies — is at least "sort of scientific." Another nine percent said it was "very scientific" (NSF, 2001).
* About 19 percent of Americans believe that Elvis is either alive or that there is a chance he is still alive (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 2002).
* About 22 percent of Americans believe that President Bush knew of the 9/11 attacks in advance (Rasmussen, 2007).
* Sixteen percent (and Rosie O'Donnell) believe that explosives brought down the World Trade Center (Scripps Howard/Ohio University, 2006).
* About 17 percent believe that "Creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster will one day be discovered by science" (Baylor Religion Survey, 2005).
* Twenty-two percent of Americans believed in five or more of the following 10 pseudoscientific beliefs: "extrasensory perception (ESP), that houses can be haunted, ghosts/spirits of dead people can come back in certain places/situations, telepathy/communication between minds without using traditional senses, clairvoyance/the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future, astrology/that the position of the stars and planets affect people's lives, that people can communicate mentally with someone who has died, witches, reincarnation/the rebirth of the soul in a new body after death, and channeling/allowing a "spirit-being" to temporarily assume control of a body" (NSF 2001).
Even those handfuls are greater than the proportion of Americans with confidence in Congress – which still doesn't make the latter any less perplexing. One suspects that, if given an option stated explicitly in Fox's Elvis poll, the great majority would have agreed: "Those people are crazy."