Earlier this week I was in Dayton, Ohio, participating in conversations at the Kettering Foundation about the ways citizens engage in and deliberate on public policy issues. The foundation has done reams of focus groups, surveys and other research on the issue and the factors that play into public discourse and deliberation.
I was struck by an ominous shift Kettering research has detected about how the public views elected officials. Yes, the research shows a declining level of public trust in people elected to public office. No surprise there. Poll after poll documents the trend. A 2011 Gallup poll, for instance, showed that trust and confidence in people who hold office or run for public office is on a steady downward trend – dropping from 66 percent in 2008 to 45 percent in 2011; those polled who said they had little or no confidence in elected officials was up to 53 percent in 2011.
But Kettering focus groups and other research show something more daunting. In the past, people generally felt that politicians entered the political arena with mostly good intentions – to work on behalf of the public and for the public good. Those surveyed thought if politicians became corrupt or unethical, they were victims of a political system that pushed them into situations because of the money required to succeed.
But Kettering research these days shows something different: The public perceives that many, if not most politicians enter politics to pursue personal gain and further their own agendas. They don’t get caught up in the system; they bring with them a culture of greed, corruption and disregard for the general good in order to enrich or empower themselves.
That perception should be an eye-opener for today’s politicians. They have a lot of work to do to convince citizens they even want to accomplish things for the public good before they can get citizens to believe they can get things done.
Elected officials have only themselves to blame. The gridlock gripping Congress, which will be discussed tonight at a public forum in Charlotte, is a good example.
Moderation and compromise have been largely relegated to the trash heap as political party extremists have hijacked legislative action. Congressional lawmakers, led by the Republicans’ tea party faction, lost sight of the public good last year when they turned a once routine piece of fiscal management – raising the debt ceiling – into a crisis that resulted in destabilizing the markets (costing many Americans financial losses) and a first-ever downgrading of the U.S. credit rating.
The debt ceiling was a crisis that didn’t have to happen. Ideologically driven lawmakers tied raising the ceiling to their own agenda about tax policy. Lawmakers did reach a last-minute short-term deal. But the debacle cemented in the eyes of many Americans and onlookers from abroad that U.S. politicians would be willing to bring fiscal calamity on America – and in a ripple effect, on the financial systems of other countries too – just to get their way.
Focus groups pointed to something else that should give politicians pause. Many people feel that politicians have lost their moral compass. Politicians don’t act in an ethical manner, with ordinary citizens as their highest concern, and there’s nothing that compels them to do so. Most political reforms won’t work, those surveyed say, because politicians have no compunction about breaking the rules.
Actions of some politicians – on both sides of the political aisle – fuel that view, from the national level on down.
Former N.C. Gov. Mike Easley’s ethical lapses have helped boost cynicism about politicians at the state level. Easley, a Democrat, became the first N.C. governor to plead to a felony when he pled to knowingly filing a false campaign finance report.
U.S. House member-elect Robert Pittenger, a Republican, spawned questions about his ethics while an N.C. senator. He voted for a bill in the state Senate that raised the value of land he owned. Pittenger’s dealings in the state legislature became a bone of contention in his run for Congress this year.
In Kettering focus groups, expectations of politicians were so low that many said the only way to get politicians to act ethically and with a focus on helping ordinary Americans was to put in place punitive measures. Among them? Politicians would lose health insurance or pensions if they deliberately acted in ways that harmed Americans or if they intentionally failed to act and the result brought harm.
Some of those surveyed said it might even take public uprisings to get elected officials focused on solving problems together for the general good of the people, and not for the politicians’ benefit or that of a particular interest group.
Politicians should not dismiss such views out of hand. They illustrate the frustration that many Americans have with the inability of elected leaders to work together for the common good despite any differences they may have.
Americans are saying in small groups and in big elections that they’re tired of politicians’ intractability and failures to work for the people. They want change. If all else fails, some are saying they’re willing to take to the streets to make it happen.