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A Crisis of Public Confidence Faces America’s Political Class

Mark Tapscott June 21, 8:42 AM

Nothing is so critical to the continuing health of a republic than the confidence of people that their elected representatives have their best interests at heart in their decision-making. Once that confidence is lost, a revolution of one sort or another becomes likely. In America, such a crisis could be right around the corner.

Consider the latest Gallup Poll, which finds only 14 percent of the American people have “a great deal of” confidence in Congress or “quite a lot,” compared to 19 percent a year ago. That is the lowest confidence rating Gallup has ever recorded for Congress since the survey firm began measuring public opinion on major American institutions in 1973.

Congress is far from alone in suffering plummeting confidence ratings. The presidency dropped from 33 percent to 25 percent and the Supreme Court from 40 percent to 34 percent during the same period. The trend line for all three branches has been downward since 9/11.

The “fourth branch” of government, the mainstream media, also has declining public confidence ratings. Television news dropped from  31 percent to 23 percent, while newspapers were down to 22 percent, compared to 30 percent a year ago.

The highest confidence levels were for the military at 69 percent, small business at 59 percent, and the police at 54 percent. Organized labor remained among the lowest at 19 percent, along with HMOs at 15 percent and Big Business at 18 percent.

If we define America’s political class – aka “the chattering classes” or the “Washington Establishment” – as consisting of the three branches of the federal government, plus the mainstream news media, some tentative conclusions are suggested:

First, the dramatic reversal of partisan political power seen in the November 2006 election was either simply a fluke or, more likely in my view, an inevitably lost opportunity for the winning Democrats. Short of an historically unprecedented philosophical reversal of course by the majority, it is hard to see Congress regaining anything remotely like a high level of public respect any time soon.

Seen in this light, Rep. Rahm Emanuel’s recent declaration that the American people “are very happy with the things we have done” seems especially out of touch.

In fact, having raised and then frustrated public hopes for a fundamental change of course in Washington, the Democrats lost opportunity could well end up accelerating the crisis of public confidence that became increasingly evident as the previous GOP congressional majority frittered away the support that had kept it in power for a dozen years.

Second, Republicans should take no comfort in the Democrats’ declining ratings. President Bush’s insistence on pushing a bi-partisan immigration reform measure that is opposed three-to-one by people who are familiar with its provisions is indicative of the overall alienation of the political class from the views and concerns of everyday Americans.

The opposition to the Bush/Kennedy/McCain immigration reform appears to be hardening, too, as indicated by this UPI/Zogby International survey that finds only three percent – three percent! – of those surveyed approve of the way Congress is handling the issue. Bush gets only a nine percent approval rating on the issue in the survey, which has a 1.1 percent margin of error.

This is why there is no evidence of increasing public support for the GOP in recent weeks despite the failling ratings of the Democratic majority in Congress. The root problem is a bipartisan inability – or refusal – to adopt policies supported by clear majorities of the American people.

Those policies for the most part involve a significantly lower level of government activism, whereas the political class for the most part seeks only a higher level because it benefits, financially and otherwise, from the higher taxes, greater federal spending and heightened importance of public institutions.

Third, the experience of the fourth branch in recent years is perhaps indicative of what is ahead for the rest of the political class.  The decline in public confidence in the mainstream media was evident more than a decade ago.

Until the advent of the Internet and tools like blogs for making it a convenient tool for mass communication, however, that public frustration had no positive outlet, other than Talk Radio. Now that blogs and other online news and commentary tools such as the Porkbusters and Sunlight Foundation approaches to public policy advocacy are developing at a rapid pace, the decline of the mainstream media as the crucial bridge between the public and policy-makers is evaporating.

When people have an affordable, effective alternative to a failed product or service, they will go to it. As things currently stand, however, there is no viable alternative to the two major parties that make up the heart of the American political class.

There is no guarantee for incumbents and beneficiaries of the two major parties that this state of affairs will last much longer.

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