Dear Politics: It’s Not Me, It’s You

The American people are breaking up with politics.

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It's been a bad week. Despite June's radiant sunshine and long daylight hours, the picture painted by the latest opinion polls is dark.

Disillusioned and downcast, the American public has lost faith in the economy and the media, and "half of the public says they don't believe [President Obama] is honest and trustworthy." Making matters worse, "both [political] parties' [favorability] ratings are down from November 2012" and "Americans' confidence in Congress as an institution is down to 10%...the lowest level of confidence Gallup has found...for any institution on record."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Beyond the meta-issues of trust and governance, the politicians in Washington seem to be ignoring the public's views on policy matters. For instance, a majority of Americans disapprove of Obama's decision to send military aid to support the Syrian rebels; the largest number on record (49 percent) believe that "the Affordable Care Act is a bad idea"; and while more than three-fifths of Americans (62 percent) prefer that the immigration bill working its way through Congress focus on border security (as opposed to a pathway to citizenship), the Senate voted down amendments yesterday to expand the border's fence.    

Unsurprisingly, Gallup today has tried to put a positive spin on all this negativity by noting that Obama's job approval "easily outpaces" the low levels of U.S. satisfaction. Seemingly comforted by the long-term, they write, "The only other times Gallup found the president's job approval rating running 20 points or more above U.S. satisfaction, and congressional approval running significantly below it, were in 1990 and 1991."

Yet what they seem to have not realized in their attempt to justify the current trend is that this situation may well portend a much more significant development on the horizon: a wholesale rejection of both parties and the policy solutions they're offering the country.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Lest we forget, the political climate in 1990 and 1991 set the stage for Ross Perot. In other words, the savings and loan banking crisis, the economic recession and the wide-ranging scandals in Congress (House bank and Keating Five) not only contributed to George H.W. Bush's precipitous decline in approval after the conclusion of the Gulf War, but also led to one of the highest levels of Americans identifying as an independent (37 percent) ever recorded.     

As Professors Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers cogently explained in an article published in The Economist (December 4, 1990: 50-53), "In the 1990 midterm election in the U.S., the American electorate sent two clear signals to politicians: that political parties are increasingly irrelevant to solving the nation's problems and that voters are losing confidence in the capacity of government to address the fundamental issues facing the country." Now, try to imagine how Americans feel having already been here before.

The take-away: politicians of all partisan stripes are going to have trouble in 2014. With the public this disheartened, distrusting and dissatisfied, those running next year are likely to find that disinterest is their greatest challenge on the campaign trail.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Do the Obama Scandals Rise to the Level of Watergate?]

And nothing is scarier to political professionals than another midterm cycle like 1990. Because it means there's nothing they can do and nothing they can say to combat their own impotence.

The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

  • Read Leslie Marshall: Who Do You Believe: Snowden or the President?
  • Read Susan Milligan: A GOP With a Death Wish
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