That Americans are skeptical of government is hardly a new phenomenon, but a recent poll shows that the public has a strikingly low estimation of how its government is working and will work in the future.
Only one in 20 Americans believes our democratic system works well and needs no changes, according to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll. Seventy percent lack confidence in the government’s ability “to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country in 2014.”
This lack of confidence in the government’s ability to tackle problems cuts across political lines. It’s not about whether government should be bigger or smaller – both sides of that divide feel similarly about the federal government’s ineffectiveness.
This shouldn’t be surprising. The last few years in Washington have been one series of partisan stalemates after another, including last fall’s partial government shutdown. Dysfunction has become the operable condition in the nation’s capital.
Some of the evidence of why may be reflected in this poll finding: Roughly half the respondents believe “the less government the better,” while 48 percent agree with the statement that “there are more things that government should be doing.” This ideological divided no doubt affects the way business is conducted in Washington.
Yet Congress and the White House have an obligation to put the nation’s needs and interests above political advantage, which neither has been able to do with any regularity in a long time. Instead, it has been primarily about political promotion and self-preservation.
Interestingly, the closer to home government gets, the more confidence Americans have in it. According to the AP, 45 percent “are at least moderately confident in their state government (with) 54 percent expressing that much confidence in their local government.” That suggests – accurately in some instances – that state and local governments are doing a better job than Washington of effectively meeting the challenges they face.
Americans’ cynicism about government, always simmering below the surface, has erupted in recent years, and the implications for our democracy are unsettling. A healthy skepticism is one thing, but when people lose any belief in the effectiveness of the system under which they are governed, that system’s survival over the long haul can’t be considered automatic.
Elected leaders in Washington must heed what this survey and so many others are saying: The American people know we face serious and daunting problems that the federal government has caused or can help solve. They don’t see that happening, and they want that to change.