Paul Jacob

The latest Pew Research Center survey of public opinion shows that Americans trust their government even less than they did before. Apparently, nearly half of us think “the federal government threatens” our “personal rights and freedoms,” while almost a third considers the Feds a “major threat.”

The body designed to represent the views of the American people — the U.S. Congress — has the approval of less than one in five of us.

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The Pew people dub the current political situation “a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government — a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.”

Yet, one would be mistaken to view current public unrest as a sharp break from recent times. In 2006, the country repudiated the corrupt, wasteful and dangerous policies and performance of congressional Republicans by voting them out and Democrats in. By the next summer the new Democratic Congress was pulling the lowest approval ratings in the history of the Gallup poll.

The depth of political discontent was clear — and fully bipartisan — long before the latest economic troubles hit. No doubt, a bad economy makes political frustrations more volatile for incumbents, and a good economy can lull the public to sleep on the need for political reform and engagement.

Clearly, however, the origin of our political frustration and anger — the emotions felt by 77 percent of Americans, according to the Pew survey — simply cannot be the bad economy.

Dissatisfaction with our politics — as practiced by both establishment parties — isn’t new. It has been festering for decades, with regular eruptions.

In the late 1970s, a citizen petition to roll back and cap property taxes, California’s Proposition 13, passed against the united political class. Within a few years, the tax revolt it sparked had succeeded in lowering property taxes or capping any increases in 43 other states.

In the 1990s, term limits raged across the country by way of local and statewide voter initiatives. Only a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision striking down the 23 state laws limiting the terms of their congressional delegations and a totally arrogant and unrepresentative Congress have kept legislative term limits at the federal level from taking effect.

The Pew survey found 95 percent of Americans agreed that it is a problem that elected officials in Washington “care only about their own political careers.” Of those, 81 percent cited it as a “major problem.”

Now, we see the Tea Parties and a new outpouring of public engagement in politics.

Yet, there is another side to this story that ought to be news: the near universal lack of response from those in public office.

With the public so up in arms, where are the serious reform proposals? Where is the acknowledgement of congressional mistakes? Where are the additional checks and balances and limitations on federal government power?

Our constitutional republic is run and maintained via a representative democracy (with, at the state level, some refreshing bolts of voter input through initiative and referendum). So, our system of government’s entire sense of legitimacy rests on the people feeling that the government acts with their consent. (This is a very American ideal, and one that is bedrock to our common sense of right and wrong in government. It is also bedrock to the perspective I share with readers of my Common Sense email letter.)

When the people lose faith in their government, it’s serious. But when the people lose such faith and those they elect to represent them take no notice of it — or any action to restore public confidence — the problem is more than just “serious.”


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.