Public Revulsion at Our Political Institutions

Published October 11, 2013

Commentary Magazine

The American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg, in examining the trends of recent polls,find trust and confidence in government to handle domestic and international problems at their lowest level in 40 years. Two-thirds of the public say they are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Anger is rising, and the number of people who say government is too powerful is at an all-time high.

One recent poll found President Obama’s approval rating down to 38 percent, the lowest of his presidency. A survey by the Gallup organization shows the GOP is viewed favorably by just 28 percent of Americans, the lowest number for either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992. The approval rating of Congress is 11 percent. And only 18 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way the nation is being governed, the lowest government satisfaction rating in Gallup’s history of asking the question dating back to 1971.

“What is stunning about these results is just how hard and how quickly public attitudes have landed on the shutdown,” according to Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. He said the poll showed “a broad disgust for the political system.”

That’s certainly understandable, given the governing fiasco that we find ourselves in. And as a conservative, I have sympathy with those who are worried about the size, scope, and power of the federal government.

At the same time, anyone who believes politics matters and, at its best, involves the (imperfect) pursuit of justice and the common good has to find this present moment discouraging and disquieting. However we got here and whoever is to blame–and we all have our opinions about the hierarchy of responsibility–the effects are badly damaging the case of those who believe, with the founders, that “the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim.” Right now our political institutions are held in contempt. That is not a good place to be for a self-governing republic.

Now it needs to be said that the public has some complicity in all this, since our political institutions largely reflect their competing–and in some instances, contradictory–passions and desires. They are the ones who elect Louie Gohmert and Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer and Rand Paul, a conservative GOP House and a liberal Democratic president, and expect them to find common ground. It’s easier said than done. We’re dealing with public officials who represent constituents who don’t simply hold different policy views; they hold fundamentally different worldviews. Still, it is the job of our elected representatives, and especially the president, to reconcile these things; to use reason and judgment to temper passions. Because a lot is at stake.

Government is, in the words of the 19th century economist Alfred Marshall, “the most precious of human institutions, and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way.” A precious human institution is being degraded and debased by those to whom we have entrusted its care. To say so is an entirely reasonable judgment. And a damning one, too.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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