“COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity for governments to build trust. According to a recent update of the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in government around the world spiked by 11 points between January and May 2020.”
mericans have trust issues. Over the past decade, their confidence in Congress, the executive branch, the judicial branch, the media, and other institutions has steadily eroded. Since the early 1990’s, the proportion of Americans who told Gallup that they trust these institutions a “great deal” or “quite a lot” has been consistently shrinking. This is particularly true for the legislative branch; over the past decade, an average of just 10.4%t of Americans expressed firm trust in Congress in annual surveys.
While there are many explanations for this phenomenon, political polarization is almost certainly at the top of the list. According to Pew Research Center (which has been tracking polarization in the U.S. for decades), Americans’ attitudes towards just about every category of public policy have become more partisan over the past 25 years. In 1994, 64% of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat, while 70% of Democrats were more liberal than the median Republican. Those numbers have shifted to 97% and 95%, respectively.
One of the main reasons Americans are critical of Congress is the (accurate) perception of surging partisanship and gridlock in Washington. When Gallup asked what’s the “most important thing you want your representative in Congress to do,” the second-most popular choice (behind “listen to the people”) was “end gridlock.” And for the voters who say they disapprove of Congress, the top three reasons they cite are “party gridlock,” “not getting anything done,” and “care too much about politics, not about country.” These attitudes extend to the executive branch, as well. It’s no surprise that the judicial branch, which Americans regard as the most apolitical branch of government, is also the one they trust the most.
These trends interact with one another; as the country becomes more partisan, our institutions become more dysfunctional, and trust continues to break down. This lack of trust has been exploited by populists on the Right and the Left, who argue that institutions are indifferent or actively hostile to the interests of most Americans. For example, President Trump has launched a sustained assault on the independent judiciary (incessantly arguing that rulings he doesn’t like are politically motivated). He describes the press as the “enemy of the people” and constantly declares that major media outlets are peddling “fake news,” and he claims there’s a “deep state” within the United States federal government bent on removing him from power.
Meanwhile, the most prominent figures on the populist left, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, insist that the United States’ core institutions are broken, corrupt, and in need of radical reform. Here’s what Rep. Ocasio-Cortez had to say about the judicial branch after Paul Manafort was sentenced to four years in prison: “In our current broken system, ‘justice’ isn’t blind. It’s bought.” Of American democracy, Sen. Sanders says, “I fear very much that, in fact, government of the people, by the people, for the people is perishing in the United States of America.” In a recent video, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez says the Coronavirus (COVID-19) exposes “systems of injustice” and “systems of class warfare” in the United States, as shots of prisons and empty store shelves fill the screen. This is the message of the populist left: Our institutions are failing.
Trust in the federal government to solve domestic and international problems hit its lowest point in more than two decades during the largest government shutdown in American history last year. At the time, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez argued that “This shutdown is about the erosion of American democracy and the subversion of our most basic governmental norms.” Many Americans clearly agreed with her. (It’s a disturbing sign of increasing polarization and dysfunction that government shutdowns are being used as negotiating tools.) There was a shutdown over the Affordable Care Act in 2013, the first since 1995, as well as one at the beginning of 2018 over President Trump’s cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The shutdown at the end of 2018 was initiated by President Trump when he held up an appropriations bill until he received $5.7 billion for his border wall.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez delivered her impassioned speech about the “subversion of our most basic governmental norms” on January 16, 2019: “It is not normal to hold 800,000 workers’ paychecks hostage. It is not normal to shut down the government when we don’t get what we want. […] President Trump has a responsibility to all air traffic controllers, FDA inspectors, TSA workers, and he has a responsibility to maintain the basic functioning of the United States government.”
For all her talk about the “erosion of American democracy” and the plight of furloughed federal employees, she cared more about making a political statement against ICE than reopening the government.
A week after Rep. Ocasio-Cortez scolded President Trump for the shutdown, the House voted on two bills to restore the basic functioning of the government and provide pay to the federal workers who were “starving,” as she put it. She refused to support either one: “We didn’t vote with the party,” she said, “because one of the spending bills included ICE funding, and our community felt strongly about not funding that.” For all her talk about the “erosion of American democracy” and the plight of furloughed federal employees, she cared more about making a political statement against ICE than reopening the government.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has taken a similar line on the efforts to respond to COVID-19. She was the only Democrat who voted against a recent $484 billion COVID-19 relief package, and she described the earlier $2.2 trillion stimulus as “shameful.” While Rep. Ocasio-Cortez was alone among Democrats in opposing the package, progressives are under increasing pressure to demand larger concessions in future relief bills, such as the cancellation of student loan debt, paid family, sick leave for all workers, and so on. As a May 4th Politico article notes, “Progressive caucus leaders say they are determined to have a louder voice in the upcoming coronavirus aid talks, particularly in the Democratic-led House. Progressive lawmakers—backed by an increasingly restive grassroots base—are pushing a list of even more sweeping programs.”
This could be a glimpse into the future as we approach the November elections and unity around the COVID-19 response begins to fray. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and other leading figures on the populist left are not going to shrink away now that former Vice President Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee, and it’s clear that they regard COVID-19 as an opportunity to push for major structural reforms. Rep. Pramila Jayapal is the co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, and she recently pointed out that it’s “getting harder and harder to do these packages, so the idea that we’re not going to do something bold now is really problematic because we don’t know when the next one will be.”
However, unlike Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Jayapal recognizes that political posturing and sermons from the House floor are not what Americans need right now. As she explained in a recent interview: “I think that it’s a lot easier to be on the outside and to be pure and never having to make compromises. But I believe we give up a lot of power doing that. Elected office is a platform for organizing—one that organizers have shunned to our detriment.” While these comments were not directed at Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, they may as well have been.
Whereas Rep. Ocasio-Cortez believes the stimulus has been a shameful and greedy capitulation that provides “crumbs for our families” while Wall Street gets rich, Rep. Jayapal argues that Congress deserves credit for taking unprecedented action: “When you think about the fact that we passed three packages in three weeks that totaled almost two-and-a-half trillion dollars, that’s a remarkable achievement.” Despite Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s insistence that the government’s response was a bonanza for the ultra-wealthy that betrayed the rest of the country, Americans agree with Rep. Jayapal. According to a Gallup survey conducted the same week Rep. Ocasio-Cortez was shouting “shameful” at her colleagues on the House floor, 77% of Americans approved of the COVID-19 stimulus package.
COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity for governments to build trust. According to a recent update of the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in government around the world spiked by 11 points between January and May 2020. This puts global trust in government at 65%, the highest level since Edelman started tracking the figure two decades ago. Even the United States’ government, which has low levels of trust compared to the other countries in the survey, saw an increase of nine points. While Gallup reported that more than three-quarters of Americans were “very or somewhat confident” in the government’s ability to handle COVID-19 in February, this proportion fell to 61% in March. However, according to an aggregation of polls by FiveThirtyEight, trust in the U.S. government’s COVID-19 response remained fairly high and stable throughout March and into April.
However, despite the fact that Congress acted quickly and decisively in the early days of the pandemic, that tenuous unity is rapidly unraveling. For example, the decision to provide $600 per week in additional unemployment relief has become a major point of friction between Democrats, who say it is necessary, and Republicans, who argue that it disincentivizes a return to work. Sen. Lindsey Graham said the program would be reauthorized “over our dead bodies.” We’ll be seeing more and more of this sort of thing: As the initial shock of COVID-19 and its economic consequences (which led to a powerful collective sense of urgency) gives way to debates over the recovery, recriminations over the response, etc., partisanship could become more intense than ever. The most divisive president in living memory is up for re-election in the middle of a pandemic and a massive economic contraction, so we are in for some intense political turbulence over the next six months.
Americans’ trust in government depends on which parts of government you’re talking about. While institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and governors have been receiving high marks, President Trump has done just about everything possible to destroy his own credibility on COVID-19, repeatedly describing it as no worse than the flu, telling Americans he wanted to open up the country by Easter, and so on. It’s no surprise that Americans’ trust in President Trump roughly aligns with his approval rating. He’s been as outrageous and incompetent as ever, and we are filtering our perceptions of his performance through our typical political lenses.
Trust in government is more important than ever during a pandemic. It’s vital for citizens to listen to public health authorities, accept the necessity of new rules, and have confidence that their elected representatives are working to solve the country’s problems—not grandstanding for applause from their political tribes.
Although Americans keep telling pollsters that they value pragmatism and compromise over political acrimony, partisanship in Congress reflects partisanship in the rest of the country. Americans increasingly regard members of the opposite party with contempt: Between 1994 and 2014, the proportion of Democrats who viewed Republicans unfavorably climbed from 57% to 79%, while the proportion who viewed them very unfavorably jumped from 16% to 38%. This antipathy is mutual: While 68% of Republicans had unfavorable attitudes toward Democrats in 1994, 82% felt that way by 2014. The number of Republicans who regard Democrats very unfavorably spiked most of all: from 17% to 43%. Voters blame Congress for being mired in partisan gridlock, but their own attitudes have created the conditions for that gridlock to persist.
This is why members of Congress and the president should resist the temptation to politicize COVID-19. Trust in government is more important than ever during a pandemic. It’s vital for citizens to listen to public health authorities, accept the necessity of new rules, and have confidence that their elected representatives are working to solve the country’s problems—not grandstanding for applause from their political tribes. Partisan battles in Congress, especially when they have a huge immediate impact on Americans, such as during a government shutdown or if emergency aid is delayed, create increasingly bitter polarization in the rest of the country, which, in turn, drives even more dysfunction in government.
It was easy for Rep. Ocasio-Cortez to shake her fist at her colleagues and refuse to support emergency aid that American citizens and businesses desperately need because nothing turned on her vote; she didn’t have the power to make anything happen or prevent anything from happening. But there’s a real risk that she will not be alone next time around. The Trump administration is about to start pushing tax cuts, progressives are demanding more radical reforms, and Democrats and Republicans are increasingly at odds over what the next phase of the recovery should look like.
At a time when Americans are sealed in their ideological echo chambers, there will always be groups of voters who loudly support policies that are intolerable to the other side. That’s why obstructionism can seem like an expression of the will of the people; politicians can always claim that they’re fighting for a better deal, regardless of whether or not their demands are politically possible. But there is no quicker way to lose the trust of the American people as a whole—what’s left of it, anyway—than by turning the government’s response to a pandemic and a recession into a game of political brinkmanship.
Matt Johnson is a writer and has contributed to a number of publications, including Haaretz, New York Daily News, Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Bulwark, and Quillette.