Americans Just Don't Trust the Elites

From the usual suspects in the Tea Party to the newly populist billionaire Donald Trump, Americans have been registering their frustration with the federal government. But it isn't just government that has used up their patience. According to new polling data from the Gallup Organization, Americans are suffering a crisis of confidence with most big political, financial, business, labor, and government institutions (see chart below).

The Gallup survey asked a random sample of more than a thousand Americans whether they thought major institutions like banks, big corporations, the courts, and labor unions, among others had "too much power," "about the right amount," or "not enough power." Topping the list of the too powerful were lobbyists -- which about seven in 10 survey respondents viewed as having too much power. Banks and big corporations were next. And the federal government -- which gets most of the attention -- came in fourth, with nearly six in 10 of those surveyed saying it has too much power.  Americans, it seems, are even more fed up with lobbyists, banks, and big companies than they are with their dysfunctional federal government.  Next in line were unions which a smaller percentage, about a third of survey respondents, viewed as having too much power.

Not surprisingly, there was a clear partisan divide in sentiments regarding elite power according to the Gallup survey.  Republicans were more inclined than Democrats to say that unions and the federal government are too powerful. Democrats were leeriest of banks and major corporations.

Americans of all stripes view the military positively -- with just 14 percent saying it had too much power.  Local government and religious organizations are also seen in a comparatively positive light.

Commenting on the Gallup poll, Kevin Drum notes that "Americans are angry" and "apparently think that everyone has too much power" adding that the "poll doesn't tell us much aside from the fact that American political beliefs are fairly incoherent." But the poll data suggests that Americans' frustration and large with their core business, financial and governmental institutions is actually pretty coherent. This sentiment is so widespread, it suggests to me that America's elite institutions could be suffering from what German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas long ago dubbed a "legitimation crisis."

The issue may actually have a lot less to do with the coherence of Americans' political views (which suggest that Americans across-the-board see business, the banks and the federal government as having too much power) and more to do with the failure of political system and the political parties to reflect these views and moreover to take on these entrenched interests in any meaningful way. Instead of blaming the voters, a better explanation comes from the investment theory of politics advanced by political scientist, Thomas Ferguson which argues  that true control of the political parties and the party system broadly rests with business, economic, and financial elites -- not voters.

The populist right -- from Palin and the Tea Party to Trump -- has certainly jumped at the chance to channel and organize these mounting popular sentiments. But what about mainstream of the parties and while we're at it, what about the Left, especially the progressive Left?  One would think such mounting frustration and anger could inform a major forward-looking political movement. And calls for more government spending and renewed commitment to Keynesian spending or for protecting working-class jobs simply don't cut it here.

What's missing is a compelling vision of a progressive future, with less power concentrated in federal hands, with real curbs on the speculative behavior of banks and financial institutions and excesses of big business, which creates new jobs and improves the 60 million plus low-wage service jobs we currently have, which curbs our sprawling wasteful pattern of economic and physical development, and which tilts the economic playing field away from the economics of "trading" toward that of real "building" by investing in skills, creativity, and shared prosperity. This is the biggest political failure of our time. And you have to ask yourself what has prevented it from emerging. It happened during the last economic crisis with the New Deal -- why isn't it happening now?

But perhaps there is the germ of hope buried in the Gallup poll.  While Americans are fed up with their federal government, they largely view local government favorably.  That's because local government is far less partisan and ideological. In my experience, it's difficult to tell whether a mayor is a Republican or a Democrat -- their focus is pragmatic and proactive; their agenda revolves around job creation and economic development, and for the most part they are indifferent to the culture war issues that have riven the country as a whole.  And these local leaders have delivered the goods, they have worked hard to rebuild their economies, fix the schools, spur local development, and even to get spending under controls. Cities and communities are not just the source of clusters of ideas, invention and economic productivity, they are the source of pragmatic, non-ideological government and consistent policy innovation. Once scorned by Americans as ineffective or even corrupt, local government is now among the most trusted and lauded institutions in American life, so much so that more seven in 10 Americans think they have at least the right amount of power and 21 percent of us even say than half  they don't have enough power. There's a lesson in that for Washington -- and all of us.