- Sarah Chamberlain
Pew survey finds eroding public trust. Transparency and action can change that.
This column was originally published on the USA TODAY Network on June 17, 2022.
By Sarah Chamberlain
Media reports on a recent Pew Research survey on “voter anger” have taken the angle that Americans are so fed up with politics right now that “two-thirds of Democrats and Republicans believe that candidates who run for office do so to benefit their own personal interests, not the community’s interests.”
Is that news — or even a surprise? As a whole, Americans believe democracy is broken. One extreme blames the other extreme for our problems. Many people’s views are driven by a hot-button topic, and neither party is willing to give the other one a “legislative victory” in fear that it will help someone get re-elected.
But a deeper dive into the results of Pew’s 102-page survey report doesn’t paint that grim a picture beyond that of a deeply fragmented country frustrated by legislative inaction, Biden Administration failures, and philosophical splits on key issues.
Buried in the report is the idea that two-thirds of respondents — and we don’t know how many actually vote — have an unfavorable opinion of the federal government but two-thirds have a favorable view of their local government.
In other words, they know they have input into who represents them through the power of the ballot box. If they don’t vote, that’s their fault. And when November rolls around, they’ll have input into who represents them in Washington, in their state capitol or in their neighborhoods. Which candidate shares similar values? Which candidate do they trust?
But they have no control over the federal government. If they live in California, they have no voice in whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez goes back to Congress. If they live in Maine, they have no control over whether an extreme Republican in the South gets re-elected, beyond their ability to comment on social media or support their opponent with campaign contributions. And they can’t control with the executive branch is doing to make their lives better or worse.
So what are the solutions?
Demand transparency. Ask about the incumbent’s accomplishments – the bills they’ve proposed, the bills they’ve supported (or voted against), and what they’ve brought back to your district. If they don’t talk about that, you can ask in public appearances or you can go to congress.gov and check it out for yourself.
Demand the same transparency from the incumbent’s opponent. That may take a bit more work, but if they’re a state representative or held other political office, you should be able to get some sense of what they’ll do if elected. Ask the media for comparisons.
Figure out what’s true and what’s misinformation. Keep in mind that everyone has an agenda and political leaning, including many media. Read or watch something you don’t normally watch, if you can’t discern the truth.
Get involved. Only 22% of respondents said they’ve contacted an elected official in the past year; 16% attended a local government meeting in person or online; and 31% said they’ve contacted a government agency.
Vote in the primaries. I’ve written elsewhere that you can’t “wait until November” because there are 10 people on your primary ballot. The most passionate people – the extremes of both parties – tend to vote in primaries unless their candidate has clearly not served their constituents or embarrassed them. Many of the rest stay home. And that results in a November matchup that may leave you scratching your head and telling pollsters you’re not happy with the government.
NBC said, “it’s a flashing red light for all politicians when two-thirds of Democrats and Republicans believe the simple act of running for office is for personal, not public, interest.”
Maybe, but that could also just be a reflection of the overall frustration and a criticism of other officeholders. But it is a concern — albeit an unsurprising one — that 75% of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Pew didn’t ask the most important question of all: Do you think you can trust your representative (congressperson or senator) to do what is right?
And the reason they didn’t is obvious: Because that’s what the ballot box is for (and because they only surveyed 2,500 people). And if you don’t vote, stop whining about what’s happening in D.C.
Sarah Chamberlain is president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership.