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The ‘legitimation’ crisis in the US: Why have Americans lost trust in government?

Who needs government? A Tea Party protest on tax day in 2010 in New York. Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

Elections normally decide who is to govern. This upcoming election is about the very legitimacy of the system.

At the final presidential debate, Republican candidate Donald Trump made the remarkable statement that he might not accept the outcome of the election. Even putting this rancorous and divisive presidential election aside, trust in the federal government in general has been in decline for decades.

In 1964 over 70 percent of Americans recorded having trust in the institution, according to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center. By November 2015 it had fallen to 19 percent, less than one in five of Americans. A recent Gallup Poll survey reveals only 20 percent trust in the presidency. Low. But not as low as the only six percent who trust Congress.

Trust and confidence in government waxes and wanes; an unpopular war or economic recession deflates the numbers only to be reinflated when the war ends or when the economy picks up. But the ending of the long postwar boom and the declining confidence in economic globalization have raised a structural rather than just a temporal crisis of confidence.

There are a number of potential crises in democratic capitalist societies. As outlined by German sociologist Jurgen Habermas, they are: fiscal crisis when government expenditure is more than revenue; economic crisis when the economy fails to meet popular expectations; or rationality crisis when there is a failure to make the correct decisions.

The U.S. may be in the difficult position of undergoing all of these at the same time.

Americans’ trust in the federal government is an all-time low, particularly the Congress. amelungc/flickr, CC BY

The economic recovery is slow, fiscal constraints hobble much needed long-term investment in physical and education infrastructure, and Congress either refuses to pass legislation or enacts legislation that benefits special interests rather than addressing the national interest.

How have all these trends coalesced to undermine popular support for the institution of government and not just the officeholders of government? There are four clear trends at play.

One: A hollowed-out middle

The U.S. blue-collar middle class has been in decline since at least 1975, and this decline has been accelerating since 2000. Many factors are at work, but one of the most visible is deindustrialization.

Manufacturing jobs once provided the platform to the middle class for non-college-educated workers, but those good-paying, secure jobs have declined dramatically. There were more than 18 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. in 1984. By 2012 it was little over 12 million.

There are many causes for this shrinking workforce, foremost among them technological progress that reduces the need for human labor, declining unionization that reduces labor’s bargaining power and trade policies that have made it easier for foreign manufacturers to import their cheaper goods.

Globalization is the shorthand name given to this constellation of changes that have led to low-wage growth for non-college-educated workers and a decline in industrial cities and regions across the country.

The two mainstream political parties have failed to adequately address the concerns of the people affected.

The Republican Party used its blue-collar base as electoral cannon fodder to promote an agenda that aided, above all, its big donors in business. For example, Republican politicians have promoted anti-union measures that aided business but undermined the organized power of blue-collar workers.

Conservative Republican rhetoric was effective in undermining the legitimacy of not only the Obama administration, but also government itself. It’s a notion President Ronald Reagan expressed crisply when he said government itself was the problem.

Meanwhile, the Democratic administrations of Clinton and Obama have pursued an economic agenda that promoted globalization. If the Republicans had a trickle-down theory that posited, despite evidence to the contrary, making the rich richer benefits everyone, the Democratic equivalent was that the benefits of globalization would eventually raise all boats.

In the long term, maybe. But in the short to medium term, where we actually live, it has negatively impacted the bottom 50 percent. Many of the blue-collar workers felt ignored by Democrats who promoted an economic globalization that undercut their jobs and a cultural relativism, such as gay marriage that undermined their values.

Cynically used by the Republicans and shabbily treated by the Democrats, many low- and middle-income Americans turned to Trump. As a family-made millionaire he’s not quite the obvious standard-bearer of the marginalized, but his outsider status and maverick campaign has resonated with a substantial mass of Americans harboring a sense of alienation from the mainstream political parties.

One could say he is the political equivalent of the opioid crisis that is devastating many rural areas and small towns. Supporting Trump, like taking opioids, is a reflection of despair. But it’s a strategy that worsens rather than alleviates the problems of economic dislocation and social alienation and erodes the bonds between middle America and the political elite.

Two: Generational differences

A second issue sapping many Americans’ trust in their government is of generational inequities.

Those born in good times get advantages over those born in bad times. And those lucky generations have a stronger allegiance to a system that they benefited from.

Born in the U.S. in the period 1935 to 1965, you were carried along on the great postwar expansion of economic growth, rising incomes and new and extended benefits. Broadly speaking, if you were white it was easy to get a job and do well. Born after 1985, on the other hand, you are coming into a job market in the Great Recession, with well over a generation of stagnant incomes and increasing costs.

What is more, the younger groups, for a variety of reasons, including the relative decline in U.S. wages and incomes due to globalization, are unlikely to receive the same level of benefits as older Americans.

Generations younger than the Baby Boomer live with more restricted economic opportunities and limited social benefits as well. Because the political system favors the more elderly it has less appeal for younger voters.

This helps explain why so many of the younger voters turn off, voted for Sanders rather than Clinton, support Trump or fail to get enthusiastic about a Clinton presidency. The deeper response is an underlying cynicism and a deep distrust in government.

Three: The financialization of society

The most profound economic and political change in the last 30 years is the rise of Wall Street.

The financial sector is arguably now bigger, richer and more powerful than ever before. Yet as its hold over the political system increases, its interests diverge from those of Main Street or the real economy, an argument even a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund has made.

Both Democrats and Republicans worked to undercut the regulations in place since the New Deal that limited the power of finance. Then even more money flowed from the bankers to the politicians. There was a revolving door between Wall Street and the political establishment. It was a totally nonpartisan affair as Hank Paulson, Robert Rubin, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers moved from key government post to lucrative gig with banks and hedge funds and sometimes back again.

The 2008 bailout of the financial system signaled the extent to which Wall Street had hijacked the government, according to the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Public discontent, exemplified in the rise of the Tea Party, soon hardened to a cynicism that is now baked into the present legitimation crisis.

Four: The financialization of politics

The fourth reason for the legitimation crisis is the financialization of politics in the U.S. that can insulate political elites from popular opinion.

The founders were distrustful of a full and functioning government by all the people. By design, the Congress and the other two branches, the executive and the judicial (an oligarchy of lifetime appointees whose ideology always seems half a century behind the general public), limit and blunt the expression of the popular will into policies and politics.

What’s happened now, though, is that policies in Washington, D.C. are shaped by interest groups who hone regulations to meet their needs. Politicians desperately need money to stay competitive, win races and stay in power. Those with the most money have the best access because they have the power to influence and advise. Ordinary people exercise political choice at elections, but those with money exercise real political power all the time.

And so an important question is not just who will win the presidential election, but how can whoever triumphs rebuild trust and confidence in government.

That person’s task is clear: Reaffirm the promise that the country has a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

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