This post has been updated
The FBI has long been an iconic institution in American life. After last week's announcement by FBI Director James Comey that the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server continues, it's hard to see it staying that way.
Wrote Roz Helderman, Tom Hamburger and Sari Horwitz in a story headlined "After another release of documents, FBI finds itself caught in a partisan fray": "For the second time in five days, the FBI had moved exactly to the place the nation’s chief law enforcement agency usually strives to avoid: smack in the middle of partisan fighting over a national election, just days before the vote."
Clinton and her allies — including President Obama(!) — are criticizing Comey for stepping into the fray so close to an election. Republicans, who spent the last several months castigating Comey for failing to recommend charges against Clinton over the email server when he initially wrapped the investigation in July, are now singing his praises.
The result of the FBI-as-political-football narrative is nothing but bad for the Bureau. Here's what the NBC political unit wrote of the impact on the FBI in all of this mishigas:
Another U.S. institution — the FBI — has taken a hit. (It’s especially true after all of the obvious leaks coming from the FBI and Justice Department.) And that news isn’t good for the country’s democracy.
No, it's not.
The decline in the FBI's reputation is in keeping with a massive fade in confidence in what have long been considered venerable institutions. Gallup has been asking people how much confidence they have in some of our major societal institutions since the early 1970s. And, this year, a majority of Americans said they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in only three: the military, small business and the police.
Those numbers are eye-popping. But the trend lines on each of those institutions in the Gallup polling really tell the story.
In virtually every case, the institutions in questions are currently at or near a low ebb — historically speaking. A few examples:
* 36 percent of people have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the Supreme Court. In 1998, that number was 50 percent. In 1988, it was 56 percent.
* 27 percent have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in banks in 2016; in 2004, that number was 53 percent.
* 41 percent said they had confidence in the church/organized religion this year. Six in 10 people said the same in 2001; 68 percent said they had confidence in the church in 1975.
It's not hard to see why confidence has waned so badly. The Supreme Court has become more and more politicized in recent years — never more so than this year when the Affordable Care Act was ruled constitutional and gay marriage was legalized nationwide. The collapse of the banking industry in the late 2000s led to deep suspicion about the wealthy masters of the universe and the rigging of the system against the average Joe. The Catholic Church sex scandal has led to a reexamination of that institution — even by many of the faithful.
Over and over again — whether it's the media, the police, our politicians, whatever — the pillars of our society have proven to be something short of infallible. And, it's not just that: There is a sense that the people who make up these institutions are part of a rigged system — they are writing their own rules to help themselves and hurt everyone else.
And then there's this: Nothing has cropped up to replace these fallen idols. The foundational pieces of society — the things we always knew we could rely on — are no longer foundational. But, with nothing to replace them, we are left rootless, casting about for a new set of institutions on which we can rely. That casting around causes fear and anxiety — and sometimes even anger.
None of those emotions are conducive to a functioning, healthy democracy. Especially in a fractured media environment where business models are built on affirming peoples' beliefs rather than offering information that might lead them to question those beliefs.
This FBI fight, then, is part of a broader thread in our political life: The end of true confidence in our current institutions and the unease that change has caused. Our politics reflects that unease — and will likely do so for some time.