Democracy in Crisis

By / 9.29.2011

US Capitol Public attitudes toward politics and government today resemble a game of limbo: how low can you go? Just when you think Americans’ confidence in their government has hit rock bottom, it sinks even further.

Consider these eye-opening findings from Gallup’s newly released governance survey:

  • 57 percent of Americans lack confidence in the federal government’s ability to solve domestic problems.
  • 69 percent have no confidence in Congress, an all-time high.
  • The public thinks Washington wastes 51 cents of every tax dollar.
  • Nearly half believe “the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.”

These numbers point to a fundamental breach of trust that goes far beyond Americans’ habitual grousing about government. The public is losing faith in their political system’s basic capacity to forge consensus and grapple effectively with national problems. We’re experiencing a crisis in democracy that eclipses all the other big challenges we face.

And it poses a particular problem for President Obama and his party, who believe in government’s ability to do good. How can they convince a jaundiced public that government isn’t the problem, but part of the solution?

For the kind of liberals who watch MSNBC and take ocean cruises with the staff of The Nation, the answer is obvious: offer an unapologetic, full-throated defense of government as the peoples’ instrument in their perennial struggles against the powerful. But the left’s blind defense of government is just as ideologically blinkered as the right’s demonizing of government as the insatiable usurper of our liberties.

Most voters, being pragmatic types, don’t have a dog in this fight; they just want some reassurance that government can be made to work again, and at a reasonable cost. For progressives, regaining the public’s trust begins with an acknowledgement of the validity of some of their complaints about government. Only then will progressives be heard when they make the positive case for new public initiatives.

No one understood this better than President Bill Clinton. He made government reform (“reinventing government” in New Dem-speak) an integral part of his progressive modernizing agenda. Clinton actually shrank the federal establishment, balanced the budget, injected choice and competition into the delivery of public services, and worked to devolve decisions from centralized bureaucracies to individuals and communities.

President Obama would be wise to follow Clinton’s example. Americans who believe the federal establishment has grown too big are not wrong; Obama should empanel a high-profile commission charged with dramatically overhauling a constellation of bureaucracies created on the industrial model to solve industrial era problems.

Americans who believe government spends too much aren’t wrong either, which is why Obama embrace his own Fiscal Commission’s grand bargain for debt reduction. Since the public already shares his view that the rich should pay higher taxes to solve the fiscal crisis, the stage is set for a deal that marries tax and entitlement reform.

And while Obama has made noises about regulatory reform, he has yet to offer a plausible way of systematically scaling back government rules that impede economic innovation and business creation. He could embrace, for example PPI’s proposal for a Regulatory Improvement Commission – a base-closing style commission that would periodically prune old and superfluous regulations.

The key point is that President Obama and progressives need to make reforming and disciplining government as integral to their message as their ideas for launching new public initiatives to solve common problems. This will show the public they understand that public activism is a tool for achieving progressive ends, not the end itself.

Photo credit: Shawn Clover