Why so many Americans hate politics

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent August 23

In a time of political polarization, one thing still unites left, right and center: the disdain people have for Washington, their elected leaders and the political system.

Everywhere people look, there are reasons to feel shut out, manipulated or deprived of the whole truth. Big money permeates political campaigns. Political rhetoric is frequently a vehicle for half-truths or pure spin. Members of Congress too often posture rather than legislate.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

The impact is all too predictable. Three in four Americans are dissatisfied with the way the political system works, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. More than eight in 10 say they trust the government to do the right thing only some of the time, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.

The Pew Research Center recently found that 55 percent of Americans think the current Congress has accomplished less than recent Congresses — a record high. A survey taken at the end of last year by the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago, formerly known as the National Opinion Research Center, found that six in 10 respondents felt generally pessimistic about how their political leaders are chosen. Gallup reported last week that only a fifth say members of Congress deserve to be reelected, which if it holds through November would be lowest percentage in a midterm year since Gallup started asking the question in 1992.

In campaigns, wealthy people with political agendas now speak loudly. The conservative Koch brothers, who will contribute perhaps several hundred million dollars this cycle to try to influence the outcome of elections, have become symbols of the new era. They may be the most prominent practitioners of an accelerating trend, but billionaires large and small, conservative and liberal, all want in on the action.

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The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and other legal decisions triggered the explosion in super PAC spending, as well as the darker expenditures by entities that collect individual contributions in the millions of dollars but aren’t required to reveal their donors’ names.

There are serious legal and philosophical arguments about the role of money in politics, as well as real debate about the actual influence all this spending has on election results. But perceptions matter, and many Americans see favoritism and possible corruption lurking behind the dollar signs.

Some politicians say they are outraged by all this money, but they can be selective about their targets. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has railed repeatedly against Charles and David Koch on the Senate floor and tried to turn them into the bogeymen of politics. Two months ago, Reid explained his animus toward the brothers, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd, “They are in it to make money.”

That is his right to say. But when it comes to the activities of his fellow Nevadan Sheldon Adelson, Reid has a different view. Adelson, a Las Vegas casino magnate, put about $100 million into the 2012 presidential campaign on behalf of Republican candidates. “I know Sheldon Adelson,” Reid told Todd. “He’s not in this to make money.”

President Obama criticized the Citizens United decision during his 2010 State of the Union address, with some of the Supreme Court justices sitting before him in the House chamber. He was unhappy with that ruling and its implications for the role of money in politics.

Whatever the president thought of the decision in 2010, he has not let his displeasure get in the way of political needs in 2014. As they say on both sides, there will be no unilateral disarmament.

On a recent West Coast fundraising swing, in addition to raising money for Democratic political committees, the president also appeared at events for the Senate Majority Committee and the House Majority Committee, two pro-Democratic super PACs.

A person connected with the House Majority PAC told Politico that the event for it that Obama attended “wasn’t really a fundraiser,” and that no tickets were sold for it. This person, who spoke anonymously, said Obama appeared only as a featured speaker and “was not asking for funds” from those in attendance.

People who know how this all works, including some who play the same game, scoff at that. The president isn’t there to pass the hat. That’s the job of someone else — long before the president arrives or well after he leaves.

Much of the money contributed to candidates and outside groups, whether by billionaires or small donors, goes into television ads by and for candidates. Watchdogs such as The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, who writes the Fact Checker column, or Politifact.com and FactCheck.org, do yeoman’s service policing the advertising and the slippery statements from candidates and campaigns.

In this age of fact checkers, ad makers have to be clever. In October 2012, Mitt Romney’s team ran a classic of the genre, an ad that was technically accurate but highly misleading in its overall message.

The ad suggested that Chrysler was going to shift production of Jeeps from Ohio to China. (In fact, the company announced plans last spring to add workers to its Toledo plant.) Ohio news organizations and others roundly denounced the Romney ad as misleading. Some Romney strategists later claimed that the ad had moved numbers in some parts of Ohio. In other words, it was worth all the denunciations.

Most ads in Senate and House campaigns don’t get nearly the scrutiny that the Jeep ad did. When they do, many fail to get a seal of approval for accuracy. Two that have drawn attention this summer are in Kentucky, where Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in what could be the most expensive Senate race of the year.

Grimes appeared in her ad with a retired coal miner, who asks why McConnell voted to raise his Medicare costs by $6,000. Fact checkers deemed the claim false. Kessler gave it four “Pinocchios,” his worst rating.

McConnell responded with an ad linking Grimes to Obama and claims of huge Medicare cuts under the Affordable Care Act. FactCheck.org, which gave the Grimes ad low ratings, blasted the McConnell spot, saying a similar accusation aimed at Obama two years ago had been deemed “a whopper.” Kessler gave it two Pinocchios.

Everyone knows that candidates spend far more time raising money than talking with voters. A leaked campaign planning document written late last year for Michelle Nunn, a Democrat who is running for the Senate in Georgia, offered a breakdown of how she should spend her time. The memo was first published by National Review Online.

Nunn’s advisers recommended that she spend 80 percent of her time on fundraising in the first quarter of this year, 75 percent in the second quarter and 70 percent in the current three months. The memo recommended that she still should devote half her time to raising money in the final month of the campaign. That’s the new normal for most candidates.

Meanwhile, important legislation languishes in Congress. To too many Americans, the system appears broken, rigged against them or both.

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