Seven in 10 Americans say the nation’s political divisions are at least as big as during the Vietnam War, according to a new poll, which also finds nearly 6 in 10 saying Donald Trump’s presidency is making the U.S. political system more dysfunctional.
The Washington Post-University of Maryland poll — conducted nine months into Trump’s tumultuous presidency — reveals a starkly pessimistic view of U.S. politics, widespread distrust of the nation’s political leaders and their ability to compromise, and an erosion of pride in the way democracy works in America.
This is hardly surprising given that voters elected the most divisive modern president, one who delights in stirring prejudice and cultivating resentment, especially among white Americans. Like populists from time immemorial, President Trump got to office claiming the answers were easy and he “alone” could fix our broken politics. In reality, he has no viable solutions and arguably doesn’t seek solutions, just self-enrichment and adulation.
Voters are not unreasonable in perceiving the “swamp” as expanding, not receding. The poll finds that “14 percent of Americans said they view ethics and honesty of politicians as excellent or good, down from 25 percent in 1997 and 39 percent in 1987. And 12 percent say members of Congress base their policies on a set of core values, while 87 percent say they mainly ‘do whatever is need to win reelection.'” A president who refuses to divest his own business, receives foreign emoluments, uses the presidency to call attention to his real-estate properties (and even to charge the Secret Service), hires relatives and will not release his own taxes has set a new low for financial ethics. As for Congress, watching them whine in private and applaud (literally) the president publicly, reverse long-held positions and ignore egregious behavior would make anyone cynical about politicians.
The voters sadly refuse to take responsibility for the results that flow from the politicians they elect:
At least 6 in 10 Democrats, Republicans and independents say “money in politics” deserves a lot of blame, while smaller majorities blame “people with extreme views,” and more than 4 in 10 of each group blame members of Congress.
A majority of Americans overall say wealthy political donors deserve a lot of blame, and nearly half say the same for both the news media and social media. In a separate question, three-quarters say media organizations tend to favor one side when dealing with political and social issues, a critique held by most Democrats and Republicans.
Only 19 percent blame average voters.
Voters surely can change the political culture they deplore. They can turn out to vote, demand respectful and reasonable lawmaking, eschew bullies and bigots, and adhere to the ethical standards they now bemoan are declining. Trump voters or Roy Moore voters who think that we are more divided and that ethical standards are lower should look in the mirror.
Sadly, there is reason for the Russians to cheer. Their aim has been to discredit democracy and thereby create a moral equivalence between their authoritarian, corrupt government and ours. They might not have to work so hard given that the “share of Americans who are not proud of the way the country’s democracy is working has doubled since three years ago — from 18 percent to 36 percent in the new survey conducted among a nationwide sample of more than 1,600 adults.”
Trump has certainly crystallized negative views of our political system:
Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say America’s politics have reached a dangerous low point, though more Democrats (81 percent) than Republicans (56 percent) hold that view. Overall, more Americans say Trump deserves “a lot” of blame for political dysfunction (51 percent) than either the Republican Party (38 percent) or the Democratic Party (32 percent).
His obsession with reaffirming his election victory might not be unreasonable. “Underscoring the partisan antipathy toward Trump, two-thirds of Democrats in the poll say they do not believe his election was legitimate — a view held by 9 percent of Republicans. Overall, 42 percent of Americans say Trump’s election was not legitimate. By comparison, 14 percent say former president Barack Obama’s 2008 election was not legitimate.” It is not clear whether they think he lacks legitimacy because the Russians tipped the election in his favor or because he lost the popular vote — or some of each. There is some irony in that the man who sought to delegitimize his predecessor with the birtherism scam is now seen as less legitimate than Barack Obama.
Finding a silver lining in these findings, I grant you, is hard. However, keep in mind that, in a democracy, ultimately the people do control the system. By improved citizenship — which includes tuning out the right-wing propaganda machine that works in tandem with Trump (as it did in dredging up the phony uranium scandal to divert attention from purported charges to be filed as early as Monday); rejecting pols who are morally and intellectually unfit for office; working across the aisle with people of good will; and defending democratic norms — Americans can reclaim their democracy.