The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Feel like everything is out of control? That’s what Republicans want.

An American flag blanket is seen abandoned along the parade route after a mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill., on July 4. (Reuters/Cheney Orr)
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If you feel like everything is out of control and nothing is working, you’re not alone. It’s also exactly how the Republican Party would like you to feel — whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat or an independent.

Gallup has released new data showing that people’s faith in almost every institution in American life — the government, the media, the medical system, the police, organized religion and many others — has not only declined over the past year but in some cases is now lower than at any time since they began asking questions about such confidence over four decades ago:

This year’s poll marks new lows in confidence for all three branches of the federal government — the Supreme Court (25%), the presidency (23%) and Congress. Five other institutions are at their lowest points in at least three decades of measurement, including the church or organized religion (31%), newspapers (16%), the criminal justice system (14%), big business (14%) and the police.

The reasons for these long-term declines — often very good reasons — are different for different institutions. Confidence in banks plunged after the 2008 financial crisis, for example, while confidence in the church has been eroded by multiple sexual misconduct scandals. And we should note that this latest poll was conducted before the court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Smart Republicans know this is great for them and their electoral prospects. It’s about two different views of government — but that’s only part of the story.

On the simplest level, anything that convinces people that government is incapable of solving their problems is good for the party that dislikes government, especially with a Democrat in the White House. Dysfunction, gridlock, a string of crises the federal government seems powerless to solve — all of this makes it more likely that voters will go to the polls in the midterms to throw the bums out, regardless of whether the sitting bums caused the problems, or whether the other party’s bums have any better ideas.

But it goes deeper than this president and this next election. Republicans benefit from a general sense that things don’t work. Their worldview is built around the idea that each of us is on our own and out for ourselves. Lost your job? Too bad, it was probably your fault, and don’t go asking the government for help. You got sick? Bad luck, but don’t expect the medical system to help. You can’t trust the police and it’s a chaotic world out there? You’d better buy some guns.

In the darker versions of this vision, we’re all atomized and disconnected, with no obligations outside our tightest circles and no one to rely on. And if you think there’s an institution out there that will help you, you’re a fool.

But that doesn’t mean conservatives won’t vote. In recent years, Republicans have convinced their supporters that voting should primarily be an act of rage. Voting has always had an emotional component. But more than ever Republicans believe that the main reason to go to the polls is not to achieve practical policy ends. It’s to lash out at the people you hate.

In this formulation it doesn’t matter whether Donald Trump kept his promises or whether a Republican Congress will either. Sure, his supporters thought, it would have been great if he had erected an impenetrable wall around our borders, brought all those lost manufacturing jobs back from China, repealed Obamacare and deported every undocumented immigrant. But what really mattered was that his election was a giant middle finger thrust in the face of liberals.

As for Democrats, it’s not that they don’t want their supporters to get mad. But for them, the anger isn’t its own reward.

Just look at what has happened since the Supreme Court overturned Roe. The Democratic base has been frustrated with party leaders, not because those leaders aren’t mad enough but because they’ve offered little in the way of a pragmatic plan to restore abortion rights, beyond encouraging the base to vote and donate more money.

The implicit message is: The only way to address this problem is through the government institutions that seem to be failing you. While Democrats need their base to retain faith that the system can be made to work for them, Republicans want their base to have as little faith in the system as possible.

And if Democratic voters lose their faith, they demobilize, seeing no point in voting or participating. Which is exactly what Republicans want them to do.

Perhaps Democrats can convince their base that voting out of pure anger (especially at the Supreme Court) is worthwhile. But right now the party’s leaders don’t really seem to be trying. Meanwhile, the pandemic lingers on, the effects of climate change grow ever more miserable, inflation hasn’t turned around, mass shootings are an almost daily occurrence, and there don’t seem to be any trustworthy institutions to turn to.

Republicans had a hand in exacerbating many of these problems. But the pervasive sense of disorder you’re feeling? The GOP is poised to benefit from it. If voters let them.

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