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Who Will Solve Our Problems? Hard Times and the Crisis of Political Legitimacy

David Callahan

One of the most frustrating things about the present moment is that public distrust of government is surging at exactly the moment when we need a bold and effective public sector. Worse, while Americans now seem ready to tackle the biggest problem of recent decades -- rising inequality -- it's easy to derail such action in the face of widespread distrust of government.

A new poll published today in the New York Times underscores the box we are in. The good news from the poll is that Americans really are worried about inequality, with 66 percent feeling that "money and wealth in the country should be more evenly distributed among more people." Americans are also pretty clear about which party favors the rich, with 69 percent of respondents saying that Republicans in Congress favor the rich and just 9 percent saying they favor the middle class. (Only 28 percent believe that the Obama Administration favors the rich -- despite all the talk in recent years about the White House's overly cozy ties with Wall Street.)

While only 25 percent of respondents said they held a favorable view of Occupy Wall Street, nearly half said that the protests reflected the view of most Americans.

The other good news from the poll is that respondents don't see the deficit as a top priority right now. Asked what is the "most important problem facing this country today," just 5 percent of respondents said the deficit, while 33 percent said jobs and 24 percent said the economy.

These views would seem to add up to strong public support for a progressive agenda aimed at creating jobs with more stimulus and reducing inequality. But the big hitch is that Americans have almost zero trust for government as an effective agent of large-scale change.

I'm not kidding when I say "almost zero." The Times poll showed that the percentage of Americans who trust government to do the right thing "most" of the time is now at the lowest level ever recorded by Times polls going back to 1976 -- just 9 percent.

Disapproval of Congress is also its lowest level, with 84 percent of Americans saying that don't like how Congress is handling its job.

All this equals a huge problem: Our country faces major challenges, but our leading institutions lack the public support and legitimacy to mount bold responses to these challenges.

None of this is very new, of course. A majority of Americans have not trusted government to do the right thing "most" of the time for some four decades now and, likewise, there have only been a few brief moments in recent decades when a majority of Americans approved of Congress.

Not to sound dramatic, but this is how countries end up as failed states. Political systems can't solve major problems, so the problems get worse, leading to less trust in political systems -- ensuring that these systems are even less capable of solving problems, and so on in a downward cycle.

Decent levels of prosperity in this country have helped paper over the crisis of legitimacy surrounding U.S. political institutions -- with polls tending to show higher trust in government and Congress during good times.

But what if times don't get better and distrust actually intensifies, which is what we have seen in the past year?

That's not a pleasant question to contemplate, so let me close on a bright note: Which is that government and Congress can still get some important things done even when Americans distrust the public sector. Indeed, last year -- 2010 -- Congress had one of its most productive years in decades, enacting huge reforms of both the healthcare and financial sector, as well as passing a number of smaller laws.

We need to figure out how to raise trust in government; we also need to figure out how government can do more despite today's crisis of political legitimacy.