Americans have become so disenchanted with Washington that a majority (54%) believe that our system of government needs “major changes.” And a significant minority (12%) believe that we should scrap what we have and replace it with something completely different. They want to change not just the government, but the system of government–the Constitutional order of the last 230 years.
The desire to change our system of government cuts across political affiliations. Among Democrats, 61% want big changes. But so do a majority of Republicans (52%). Among Independents, over a fifth, 22%, want to scrap the whole thing.
Few Americans feel that they can trust their government. Only 2% say that they trust the government “all of the time.” Only 12% say that they trust the government “most of the time.” Half (50%) believe they can trust the government “some of the time.” And over a third of Americans (36%) believe they can “never” trust the government.
The poll shows that Americans are dissatisfied with how the government is handling every issue they were asked about (terrorism, the economy, crime, borders, etc., etc.) and every governmental function (protection of rights and liberties, conducting elections, checks and balances).
Nearly a third of Americans say “the government can’t work well no matter who is elected,” with Republicans being more skeptical about that (38%) than Democrats (16%).
Such disenchantment with the government spans all races, ages, incomes, and educational levels.
Unfortunately, the study does not go into the details of what these legions of dissatisfied Americans would like to change and what kind of system they would prefer. But this data does help account for why socialism has suddenly come into vogue and why Bernie Sanders keeps calling for “Revolution.”
And when the grousing is bipartisan, that is usually a signal that different things are meant by the different sides. As with the pollster’s question that the media makes so much of “Do you think the country is headed in the right direction?”, some think the country is becoming too conservative, while others think it is becoming too liberal. But both will agree that the direction is “wrong.”
Today Republicans tend to be angry at Congress, while Democrats are in a state of “Resistance” against the President. Both might well say that they are in favor of “major changes” to our system of government. Perhaps a new Warren G. Harding will someday usher in a “return to normalcy,” which will calm things down and mitigate our national cynicism.
But while skepticism about the government is surely healthy for free citizens, it is an ominous sign when the citizens of a democracy no longer have confidence or respect in the governments they elect. Yes, we have a democratic republic rather than a pure democracy, but republics too go away–and are voted away–when the people get too frustrated with them. This happened with the Romans, who threw away a rights-protecting, checked-and-balanced constitutional republic that lasted nearly 500 years–over twice as long as ours–in favor of an absolutist Empire that could “get things done.”
The desire for a government to “just get things done,” without the formality and slowdowns of a representative political system, is the attraction of authoritarianism. The last act of democracies–as has happened time and time again (in ancient Greece, in republican Rome, in revolutionary France, in pre-war Germany)– is to vote in their Dictator.
Our constitutional system was designed precisely to limit and slow the government’s action, to keep it from dominating the people, and, at the same time, to prevent it from giving in to their passions. Nevertheless, it could also deal with problems that needed addressing. As constitutional law scholar James Huffman points out, the checks and balances set up in the U.S. Constitution were designed to require compromise and consensus. Today, though, our political culture in both parties has a winner-take-all mentality:
To be sustainable, democratic government must be an iterative process of compromise, not a winner-takes-all competition for power. The goal must be broad consensus, not garnering a simple majority of votes. A narrow victory at the polls should be cause for humility, not a victory dance in the end zone.
When Barack Obama was elected he let Republicans know that elections have consequences. Republicans, in turn, made it their mission to block every Obama initiative. When Trump was elected, he claimed total victory, while Democrats immediately raised the prospect of impeachment and declared themselves the resistance. . . .
But if the consequence of each election is that the victorious party believes it gets to run roughshod over the interests of the losing party and the losing party understands that its mission until the next election is to resist every initiative of the majority party, we are doomed to a future of partisan warfare, disruptive transfers of power, and neglect of the important and necessary work of government.
The American people are right to be frustrated with their government. It really is dysfunctional and ineffective. But rather than throw out the Constitution and try something else that is almost sure to be worse, perhaps we could recover authentic Constitutionalism.
Is part of the problem that Americans need to adjust their expectations for the national government, embracing a more limited notion of what the government should be doing?
Those of you who believe the system needs changing, what would you change? Could the existing system be salvaged with just some tweaks–and, if so, what are those tweaks?–or do you agree that it is hopeless?
Illustration: “The Storming of the Bastille” By Jean-Pierre Houël – Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106405