Voters say they have nothing to fear more than government itself
There's fresh evidence that anxiety about the many ways American democracy is malfunctioning remains very high in the national consciousness.
More than a third of Americans now view the government itself as the top problem in the United States, the Gallup survey out Monday finds. Those results offer all candidates now running for office a clear rationale for elevating plans to "fix the system" closer to the top of their policy agendas.
So far, however, proposals for reforming democracy have received minimal attention in the 2020 campaign — neither in the presidential race that's been underway all year nor in the hundreds of congressional and state legislative contests just starting to gel.
President Trump, whose upset victory was spurred in part by impassioned promises to "drain the swamp," essentially never mentions that aspiration any more. And while all the top-tier Democratic candidates have unveiled proposals for tackling some of the system's perceived shortcomings, talk about them has been next to nonexistent in their stump speeches or in the first four nationally televised debates.
To the extent Democrats have talked of healing democracy's wounds, it has been to profess broad agreement about the corrupting influence of big money on policymaking and the dangers of Trump flouting democratic norms and upsetting the balance of powers. There's been minimal discussion of their concrete proposals for regulating campaign finance or raising Congress and the courts back on par with the executive branch — and even less talk about ways to bolster confidence in American elections, expand voting rights, ease access to the ballot box or get politicians out of the business of choosing their own constituents.
There's ample reason for that to change in light of Gallup's latest findings — which show that just 11 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of independents describe themselves as satisfied with the country's direction. And the number of Republicans professing satisfaction dropping sharply in the past month as well.
One big reason is a surge of anxiety that's almost surely a result of the House's launch of a move toward Trump's impeachment: 34 percent volunteered the government, poor leadership or politicians as the most important problem facing the country — up 11 percentage points since September and just a single point shy of the record, set this February after the end of the longest partial federal government shutdown in history.
The current 34 percent are broadly bipartisan: 41 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans, and each of those shares has jumped 13 points in a month. Independent are marginally more sanguine about the government: 27 percent say it's worry No. 1, an 8-point rise since summer ended.)
But the blame for the government's ills exposes a sharp partisan divide: Republicans mention Congress and political parties way more than Democrats, who cite the president and impeachment most often.
At least as worrisome for the country, however, is that the government-is-the-problem number has been high for a very long stretch.
Gallup has been tracking the public's views of the nation's most important problems for eight decades. In each month for the five years after the Great Recession started in 2008, economic-related issues topped the list volunteered by the voters. But the trend during the Trump administration is rivaling that for consistency. "Government," which takes in negative comments about leadership and politicians, has been the top problem in all but three of the Gallup's 34 soundings since January 2017. (Immigration topped the list the other times.)
Before a spike of 33 percent during the 2013 budget standoff between President Barack Obama and a divided Congress, the highest share of voters naming the government as America's biggest problem was 26 percent just before President Richard Nixon was forced to resign in the Watergate scandal.
The latest poll is based on a survey conducted Oct. 1-13 of 1,526 U.S. adults. The margin of error is 3 percentage points.
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In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.