Of all the polls taken this year, this nugget from a Pew Research survey in March is maybe the most fundamentally depressing, and its pessimism now seems hard to argue with. Pew found that a solid majority of voters in both parties had confidence in the voting public in October 1997 (after both Bill Clinton and the Newt Gingrich-led Republican Congress were re-elected) and again in January 2007 (well into George W. Bush’s unpopular and unsuccessful second term, and just after the Pelosi-Reid Democrats swept to control of Congress). Those were days of intense partisanship and a lot of discontent with electoral outcomes from each party, and discontent as well with both united and divided government – yet between 58% and 69% of voters in each party still had faith that the American electorate gets it right over the long haul. (Arguably, that faith was sustained in part by Republicans who saw the Clinton years as an illegitimate plurality government and Democrats who saw Bush as “selected, not elected” after losing the popular vote in 2000).
After eight years of Obama and the rise of Donald Trump, that faith is gone. In polls in late 2015 and March 2016, nearly two-thirds of voters expressed “little or no confidence in the public’s political wisdom.” Only 40% of Trump supporters had faith in the voting public, and it got worse from there, down to 27% among Bernie Sanders supporters. Thus, the problem is not just disenchantment with a single partisan outcome, although clearly Republican voters have decided that the majority who voted for Obama are hopeless, and the rise of Trump reinforced Democratic voter views of GOP voters.
Frankly, part of the problem is not just bad results; it’s also that we’ve had a whole cottage industry – especially on the left side of the spectrum, but not exclusively – now devoted to demonizing the other side’s voting base. It wasn’t always like this, especially not back in the 1980s when both parties relied on ticket-splitting voters like the “Reagan Democrats.” The red/blue maps of 2000 hardened the view that we were not just a country with two different camps of politicians, but a country divided between two irreconcilable tribes of people. (Pew’s latest emphasizes how few Clinton voters, in particular, even know anyone in the other tribe). Pollsters like PPP regularly turn out “troll polls” designed to generate headlines about how stupid and bigoted Republican voters are. Blogs and Twitter encourage “nutpicking,” the use of things written by the worst people on the other side to discredit them. We’ve taken Winston Churchill’s maxim that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter” to its logical extreme.
I’m as disenchanted as anyone with the last three presidential election cycles, but this is unhealthy and dangerous direction. The Founding Fathers designed our representative democracy knowing full well that people can be terrible, stupid, self-interested and hateful; their goal was to balance out the flaws of small groups of people and short periods of time by spreading out the electorate to encompass a nation too big for any one faction and creating ’speed bumps’ in the system that require sustained popular will rather than passing popular enthusiasms before one side can take full control of the agenda. This is the conservative way: get the largest possible sample size before translating popular opinion into lasting change. The prevalance of bad leaders should only encourage us to make those checks and balances stronger, rather than weaker, rather than losing our trust in the system. Yet there’s also an important truth here that Washington and Adams remarked upon: if the voters are truly debased, no system can protect us from ourselves.
There are many causes to our drift into hyper-partisan tribalism that now – in the Year of Trump, when the Democrats’ message is Vote for the Crook – seems shorn even of ideological content. I maintain that the largest of all is the massive growth in the Supreme Court’s power over issues that were once decided democratically at the local or state level, represented most dramatically by Roe v. Wade. The Court, of course, has for decades now been subject to no external checks and resolves issues on a winner-take-all basis without compromise. Given its control over cultural issues as the spoils of quadrennial presidential elections, the long tenure of its Justices and the permanent and nationwide nature of its decisions, this encourages and exacerbates the view that every national election is a fight for absolute power to Do Unto Others Or Get Done Unto You – to gain absolute authority over who may marry or own guns or attend college or publish political ads or adhere to their religious faith. It is no wonder that such a system of government creates a lot of losers who feel embittered and disenfranchised at the process and at the neighbors near or far who foisted those outcomes on them.