In a New York Times/CBS poll released yesterday, respondents were split on the issue of campaign finance: 39% favored “fundamental changes” to the way elections are funded, while 46% said the system needed to be “completely rebuilt.” There is too much money in politics, and everyone but the Supreme Court seems to know it. Show me another issue on which 85% of Americans agree. While we’re at it, show me an issue that poses a greater existential threat to our democracy. Forget corruption and the appearance of corruption. When two thirds of respondents say the wealthy have a greater chance to influence elections than ordinary voters, they’re describing a crisis of faith in the American experiment.
Maybe that’s a Chicken Little hypothesis, but the details of this poll make the sky look conspicuously lower. Over half of those surveyed expressed pessimism at the prospect of improvement in campaign finance rules. Respondents feel shut out of the democratic system, yet “virtually no one in the poll ranked campaign financing as the most important issue facing the country.”
There are two ways to read that. If you’re cheerful—as I try to be first thing in the morning before I think about anything—then you might conclude that most Americans think campaign finance is badly broken but not seriously affecting 21st-century democracy. In this interpretation, poll respondents felt the rich had more say in elections than workaday voters, but that this edge was small enough not to affect the quality of our political system.
If your mind takes a darker turn—as mine does when I open the blinds and find my neighbor drinking beer and staring directly into my window—you might conclude that respondents believe democracy is broken but do not consider it very important to the operation of America. This explanation is almost too depressing to think about. Fearing that the traditions of our great republic are in jeopardy is one thing. Deciding those traditions aren’t as important as catching terrorists or lowering the capital gains tax is how the American system vanishes. I quote the Times:
Some expressed a profound alienation from their own government. They said they did not expect elected officials to listen to them. They described politics as a province of the wealthy. And, despite being inundated with political advertising—and being repulsed by the billions of dollars required to pay for it—they said they sometimes did not feel informed enough to come to an opinion about the candidates.
My elected officials ignore me; I hate politics, and I don’t really understand it. That, friends, is a eulogy for participatory democracy.
Probably, though, we should not declare the American experiment a failure because of one spooky poll. I direct your attention to page 4 of the .pdf, in which respondents name the most pressing problem facing the country. “Economy” comes in second with 11%. “Politicians/government” is a close third with 10%. The landslide winner category, with 28% of responses, is “other.”
For reference, that means more than a quarter of the people who responded to this poll did not think that health care, the budget deficit, education, Medicare/Medicaid, taxes, immigration, defense, poverty, crime, foreign policy, jobs, abortion, moral values, welfare, the president, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the environment, religious values, terrorism1 or guns was the most important issue facing America today. They thought it was something else. And only 5% said they didn’t know.
So we return to the conclusion we always seem to reach when we talk about broad national surveys: poll respondents are dumb. Unless 28% of them are extremely concerned about Benghazi, Americans seem gripped by a vague sense that A) they are unfairly excluded from politics, and B) something else is more important than the issue at hand.
It would be sweet if they were all angry about wealth inequality, which is strangely absent from a list of categories that distinguishes between “moral values” and “religious values.” That would tie a nice bow. But I worry they are angry generally, even though no one problem seems like that big of a deal when they stop and think about it.
Something is wrong with America in 2015. Everybody agrees, even if nobody can say exactly what it is. Maybe things are humming along fine, and we’ve all just suffered a crisis of confidence. Or maybe there has been some fundamental change, such that short of going broke, Americans’ biggest worry is their own government and the rich people who run it. One suspects they always ran things. So what’s wrong with how they’re doing it now?