Try to forget for a minute about the terrible choice you’ll have to make between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump this November. America has a more serious, long-term problem coming down the pike than one bad election: the people have lost confidence in the government, but they want the government to do more.
This isn’t exactly breaking news, but it represents a slow-motion crisis for the country. Public trust in the government has languished at historic lows for years. A poll last year found only 19 percent of Americans were willing to say they trust the federal government to do what’s right. Other polls show that only a quarter of the country thinks America is on the “right track,” 17 percent approve of Congress, and more than 80 percent are angry or frustrated with the government.
At the same time, Americans say they want the government to take on more responsibility. A Gallup poll released Monday found 58 percent in favor of replacing Obamacare with a federally funded universal health care system. That confirms the findings of a major Pew poll released last November: “Majorities want the federal government to have a major role in addressing issues ranging from terrorism and disaster response to education and the environment.”
The Ongoing VA Scandal Showcases Government Incompetence
At the heart of this contradiction is a simple truth: the reason voters are unhappy with the government is that it fails often, and it fails because it tries to do things it will never be able to do well. The abysmal state of Medicaid and Medicare, the decades-old government health care programs for the poor and elderly, should be evidence enough that Washington will never be able to run a trillion-dollar-a-year health care system. And if that weren’t evidence enough, Obamacare is collapsing before our eyes, with insurers pulling out of state exchanges, premiums set to rise in large states like California, and the Obama administration attempting to make up the law as it goes along.
Add to that the recent news that the VA system, which was wracked by scandal two years ago when news broke of rampant corruption and dysfunction, has yet to be fixed — despite a $10 billion scheme to reduce waiting lists by allowing veterans to seek care from private doctors and hospitals. Those waiting lists were actually death lists. Veterans were literally dying while waiting for medical care, and VA bureaucrats were falsifying waiting lists so they wouldn’t miss out on pay bonuses. It was as appalling a scandal as Washington ever coughs up, and it led to the resignation of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
But Congress hasn’t been able to fix the VA system. At the heart of the 2014 scandal was the falsification of dates in the scheduling system to show shorter or zero wait times. But a Government Accountability Audit in March found this exact same problem persists. Despite two years of congressional hearings, investigations, and increased funding, essentially nothing has changed.
The federal government can’t run a health care system for 8.75 million veterans, and yet Americans say they want the federal government to run a health care system for the entire country.
Obama’s Empty Promises Fueled Frustration
In the case of the Obama administration, failure doesn’t just come from incompetence with existing programs. It also comes from promising to do things the government will never be able to do, like halt climate change or convince Saudi Arabia and Iran to “share the neighborhood.” Over the past eight years, Obama has promised Americans a lot, and almost none of it has come to pass.
After a while, Americans notice. All the Paris Climate Conference photo-ops and fawning retrospectives from the Obama courtesans at Vox won’t convince people that Washington is going to halt rising sea levels or replace fossil fuels with wind and solar energy. In fact, the complicity of much of the liberal media in the overblown promises of government is probably why a recent poll found only six percent of Americans have much confidence in the media.
This crisis of confidence encompasses not just government or the media. Americans are losing confidence in most major institutions, from banks to public schools to big business. There’s a reason Sanders can stand in front of 10,000 cheering fans and promise to “break up the banks,” or Trump can declare on national television that he’s going to punish U.S. firms that move overseas and build a wall along the Rio Grande. We don’t trust the banks and we don’t trust the corporations. The system is rigged, from Washington to Wall Street, and the people aren’t going to take it anymore.
Populist Demagogues Offer a Way Out
But the irony is, they’ve accepted the government’s logic that the solution to failed government is more of it — or perhaps a new kind of government altogether.
When citizens no longer trust the institutions of their government to do the basic tasks they were designed to do, there’s a risk that some people, perhaps even a large swath of them, will look to a figurehead or a leader that can transcend the corrupt system that has so utterly failed them. This is how you get populists like Trump and Sanders, outsiders whose adulation arises from the deep antipathy voters across the political spectrum have toward Washington.
But Washington will always disappoint, as all governments do. H.L. Mencken once quipped, “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.” Expiating that sense of shame has been a campaign theme of both Trump and Sanders. They promise to create a country we can feel proud of. They promise to “Make America Great Again,” to create “A Future You Can Believe In.” They have heard the people, and they promise to save them from the ongoing spectacles of failure and corruption in government. The people, for their part, want to believe it. They are frustrated and angry enough to believe almost anything. That’s the dangerous part.