image credit (Dennis Flaherty)
A recent study from Pew Research shows Americans' unprecedented negativity towards politics, politicians, and political parties.
"Majorities say special interests dominate the political process, flooded with campaign cash and mired in partisan warfare. Americans widely view elected officials as self-serving and ineffective,” the article reports.
These are the lowest levels in nearly seven decades. Only 4% of US adults believe the political system is working extremely or very well, and only 16% say that they trust the federal government always or most of the time.
These numbers are alarming, and they have dire consequences. A lack of trust in institutions increases obstacles in solving the most critical issues of our time. It is difficult to rally support when most citizens understandably lack faith in the system as a whole.
Additionally, a high level of distrust in the government is often representative of fragile nations. John Ciorciari, the head of the International Policy Center at the University of Michigan, writes, "Fragile states are fragile because the majority does not believe the government is legitimate."
To restore trust, institutions must fight the corruption and division that has led to so much distrust and anger.
Recent allegations of corruption against New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez highlight the broad perception that our politicians prioritize their financial interests over helping their constituents. According to the Associated Press, "The three-count indictment says they were paid bribes — gold bars, a luxury car and cash — by three New Jersey businessmen in exchange for the corrupt acts." The allegations have led half of Senate Democrats, the party Menendez is a member of, to call for his resignation. Menendez has denied any wrongdoing.
The Pew study found that 81% of Americans say that members of Congress do a very or somewhat bad job of "keeping their financial interests separate from their work in Congress." 63% say all or most politicians ran for office to make a lot of money.
The perceived impact of money in politics leads many Americans to lose faith in those who hold office. Pew additionally reports that 85% of Americans believe that "the cost of political campaigns makes it hard for good people to run for office." 80% say donors hold too much sway, and 73% say lobbyists and special interests have attained too much influence. This outsized impact leads 72% of Americans to support limits on political spending.
Perceived corruption further degrades our trust in institutions as the populace rightly questions who elected officials are truly serving.
The number one word used when asked in the Pew survey to describe the current state of American politics was "divisive."
The Second Republican Primary Debate took place Wednesday night. Substance aside, the debate was marred with character insults and candidates talking over each other so much that you could often not understand what was going on. Unfortunately, this represents vast swaths of ugly political discourse today.
This destructive discourse in both parties heightens division as no politicians can seemingly have respectable and substantive dialogues. Each side demonizes the other, focusing more on the debate than solving issues.
According to Pew Research, 86% of Americans agree that "Republicans and Democrats are more focused on fighting each other than solving problems." This polarization leads to 78% saying, "There is too little focus on the important issues in the country."
The outrage at both political parties for worsening our discourse to this level shows up in a growing percentage of Americans who no longer identify with either party. 28% express unfavorable views of both political parties, the highest share in three decades of polling. 25% of adults do not feel well-represented by either party. In 1994, just 6% of Americans viewed both parties negatively. Today, 37% wish there were more parties to choose from.
The division and corruption lead to consistent inaction from our politicians. This week, the US Government is heading towards a shutdown due to an inability to pass an agreement on spending. Millions of government employees will have to wait until the end of the shutdown to receive a paycheck due to squabbling amongst our elected officials.
The candidates currently running for public office do not give much hope to those already upset about the current state of affairs. Pew reports that 63% of Americans are dissatisfied with the emerging candidates for 2024. Only 26% rate the quality of political candidates as very or somewhat good, which is down 20 points just from 2018.
The current leading presidential candidates, incumbent Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump hold high disapproval ratings nationally. According to an NBC News Poll, 60% of Americans do not think Trump should seek the Oval Office again, and 70% don’t believe Biden should run.
The current state of affairs leads to a sense of hopelessness in the whole system. The study continues, "Adults younger than 50 are less likely than older people to say voting can have at least some effect on the country's future direction." 57% of Americans believe voting by people like them can affect the country's direction, with only 20% saying it can have "a lot" of impact. A lack of belief that your vote matters is detrimental, as a thriving democracy requires active civic participation.
The country needs a transformation away from the vitriolic state of modern politics, and many Americans agree on fundamental changes they believe will lead to lasting positive outcomes. In addition to the limits on political spending already mentioned, Americans also widely support both age and term limits for elected officials, according to Pew. There are also calls for age limits for Supreme Court Justices.
The growing discontent with politics and politicians presents an opportunity for uniting the divisive state we currently live in. The data shows that Americans are increasingly sick of major political parties and the disruptive discourse surrounding political conversation. This discontent presents a lane for politicians and the media to provide the commonsense solutions and the reasonable coverage that people seek. If neither arena, politics, nor media can successfully navigate this lane, the already high distrust will continue to grow and reinforce the downsides it currently presents.
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