Americans Complain about Washington but Won’t Inform Themselves about It

(James Lawler Duggan/Reuters)
They should keep public officials on track but won’t as long as they remain disengaged.

The Fox News poll released last week is one of the latest to suggest that public opinion has settled in with respect to President Donald Trump. His job approval rating continues to bounce around in the low to mid 40s, while his disapproval rating is in the low to mid 50s. This stability is based on overwhelming support from self-identified Republicans. Unless some unforeseen event occurs, that makes a primary challenge in 2020 extremely difficult.

Fox News also found the people still to be in a populist mood. Fifty-five percent of respondents said that “political leaders in Washington look down” on people like them, while just 11 percent said they felt “like political leaders in Washington are in touch” with people like them.

This sort of us-versus-them spirit has long infused American politics. Indeed, it is possible to trace populist movements of one sort or another back to the founding of the nation itself. The Anti-Federalists were suspicious that the new Constitution represented a consolidation of power by the wealthy few. The Jeffersonian Republicans and Jacksonian Democrats had a similar suspicion. The Populists and Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries fought against the concentration of wealth and power in the new industrialized economy. The late 1960s produced populists movements on both the left and the right. And the current populist mood has been a dominant feature of our politics for a decade.

It is well and good for Americans to be suspicious of their rulers. That is how the officials they elect are kept on track. But I frankly don’t have a lot of sympathy for this frustration anymore.

Do not get me wrong. I agree with the general sentiment that the “elites” think little of the average American. But the fact of the matter is that populist movements over the course of the centuries have opened up our political process such that, with the exception of appellate judges and Supreme Court justices, elites inevitably have to come back either to the people or their direct representatives.

That is, of course, the great revolution of the Constitution, which anchors government not on some hereditary nobility but on the people themselves. And think of all the changes that were made since the Constitution was finalized in September 1787. The Bill of Rights enshrined an elaborate jury system to check federal judges and prosecutors. The presidency has been opened up to popular vote. The 14th Amendment prohibited states from inhibiting political participation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 put teeth on this protection. The Senate is now popularly elected. Primaries have democratized the political parties, essentially destroying machine politics for good.

There are very few corners of our government that cannot be changed if the people do not wish to change it.

The “elites” of today’s “establishment” continue to thrive because of the forbearance of the voters. Forbearance is not the same as consent. The former is a passive sentiment, while the latter is active.

Passivity is a good way to define the citizenship of the United States in 2018. The evidence of civic disengagement is manifest throughout the same Fox News poll, in big ways and small.

The biggest story of the day continues to be the investigation, into Trump and Russia, being conducted by Robert Mueller, who has been a top figure in American politics for well over a decade. Yet, according to Fox News, 27 percent of Americans have no opinion of him.

That is the same percentage that has no opinion of Mitch McConnell, who as Senate majority leader is perhaps the most powerful person in Congress. Shockingly, 43 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable opinion of McConnell — despite the fact that it was his efforts, more than anybody else’s, that kept Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat open until Trump could name a replacement last year. On the whole, nobody in the last generation has done more than McConnell to prevent a full-blown takeover of the judiciary by the American Left. Perhaps Republicans don’t care about that, but I’d say it is much more likely they don’t know about it.

A whopping 61 percent of Americans have no opinion of Kevin McCarthy, who, as the Republican majority leader, is the second-most important person in the House and quite possibly its next speaker.

A wide majority of Americans, 61 percent, say that they approved of the United States’ “using military airstrikes to punish Syria for using chemical weapons.” But 60 percent also said that the president should have received “the consent of Congress” first. Obviously, it is possible to support the strikes despite their not having received congressional approval, but it is much more likely that people just are not putting much thought into the details of the country’s Syria’s policy.

Our system of government gives the people vast discretion to change the government as they like. But to use this power effectively, they first have to know a thing or two about the government.

So I would say that the respondents to the Fox News poll have it exactly backwards. It is wrong to say that the elites in Washington are not in touch with them. Rather, they are not in touch with the elites in Washington.

None of this is to excuse the problems of representation and even corruption that emanate from our government — a subject I have written about extensively. Rather, it is to suggest that a cause of the problem (among many) is a disengaged, disinterested, and poorly informed American public.

Our system of government gives the people vast discretion to change the government as they like. But to use this power effectively, they first have to know a thing or two about the government.

If they do not, then how can they properly police public officials? And if they can’t properly police public officials, should we really be all that surprised that our leaders act with hubris toward and disregard for the public interest?

Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.


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