Editor’s Note: This latest blog on www.indielitworld.com is written by Humphrey Taylor, the Chairman of the Harris Poll and the Chairman of the National Council of Public Polls. The essay describes the dismal condition of American public opinion toward their government – and some of the causes. You are invited to participate in this discussion as a reader and contributor to a discussion of the problems facing the Western democracies. This analysis is a reflection of the growingly obvious failure of the American government to provide answers that voters find appealing.
By Humphrey Taylor,
Chairman, The Harris Poll
The latest polls paint a bleak picture of the American electorate. In our most recent Harris Polls, 78% of adults think the country is on the wrong track, only 32% give President Obama positive marks while a mind-bogglingly low 6% give Congress positive ratings – the lowest approval rating for Congress ever recorded.
But the malaise runs deeper than dissatisfaction with the current political incumbents. In August the annual Harris Alienation Index reported big increases in the number of people who believe that “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer (73%), that “the people running the country don’t really care what happens to you”(73%), that “what you think doesn’t count very much anymore”(66%), that “most people in power try to take advantage of people like you”, and that 87% feel that “ the people in Washington are out of touch with the rest of the country “. Never before have so many Americans been “alienated” from those who run the Country – numbers that underlay the frustration expressed in the “Occupy Wall Street Movement.”
It can be argued that all this gloom is just a reflection of the lousy economy, the large numbers of unemployed and the continuing housing crisis; and obviously these are all very important factors. But I think there are other causes of this malaise that will continue even when the economy recovers.
But first a word of caution Pollsters should strive to be politically neutral rather than advocates. As a pollster myself I see my role as a professional voyeur who is also a eunuch so that I am not aroused by what I am measuring and observing. But of course I am human and, like everyone else, I come with some baggage — my values and my beliefs. In my case these have surely been influenced by my experiences growing up in Britain, having lived in five continents, and having conducted thousands of surveys in the UK, the USA, and more than 80 other countries. Although I have lived in New York for thirty-five years, my impressions of American politics and government are conditioned by what I have observed elsewhere.
When viewed through this international prism, the American system is strikingly different from most western democracies with parliamentary systems. The most striking, and interrelated, differences include:
• The direct election of the US president as compared to the prime ministers chosen by the leading parliamentary parties,
• The difficulty that presidents have in passing controversial legislation and major reforms – in stark contrast to the power of prime ministers, whose parties normally control their legislatures.
• The gerrymandering of American Congressional districts so that the overwhelming majority is safe Republican or Democratic seats, where the elections that really matter are the primaries rather than the general elections.
• The Senate filibuster rules that allow a minority to block legislation unless there is a 60 vote majority in its favor.
• The ability of American candidates, parties and their supporters to raise and spend huge sums of money and to buy unlimited amounts of TV and radio time.
• The political power and influence of all this money, or rather of all the people, companies and organizations involved.
These more or less unique features of American democracy have, of course, a huge impact on the American government and what the government can and does achieve. They help to explain why the United States was so late, compared to other affluent democracies, to introduce a government pension scheme (Social Security), to sign many international treaties and why, Obama-care notwithstanding, it still does not offer universal health insurance.
The gerrymandering of Congressional districts and the resulting importance of primary elections, squeezes out the moderates and fills the House of Representatives with members who appeal to the relatively small minorities of party activists – Left-wing Democrats and Right-wing Republicans , many of whom regard compromise, or reaching across the aisle, as anathema.
The direct election of presidents often results in a White House with little or no skill or experience in working with the Congress to get things done. President Lyndon Johnson (who only became president because of the assassination of President Kennedy) was very unusual in that he really knew how to twist arms, cajole and make deals with members of Congress to pass important legislation. Most presidents have to learn this on the job and many have failed to do so. It is no happenstance that some of the most important social legislation was passed under exceptionally strong presidents, whose parties controlled both houses of Congress, after or during major crises — by FDR in the Great Depression and by LBJ after the death of Jack Kennedy.
In all fairness, and in defense of the sometimes infuriating checks and balance in the US system of government that make it so difficult to do tough things, I should point to the problems that can be caused when it is too easy to pass legislation. The post-war British Labour government nationalized the UK steel industry. As governments changed over the next 25 years it was then denationalized, nationalized again and denationalized again, by which time the industry had virtually ceased to exist.
What is the relevance of all this today? It is tough to be optimistic about the US political system as it operates today. The House of Representatives seems to be more polarized than at any time since the Civil War. More money will be spent on the 2012 elections than ever before, much of it given by special interests for the sole purpose of electing members of Congress that will help their “interests.”
The power and influence of the extremists in the two main parties seems to grow even stronger In every election cycle. And there is no sign that any of the underlying causes of these problems will change. However, history suggests that we should probably beware of contemporary political judgments. Historians sometimes look more kindly on politicians in retrospect. As Speaker Reed famously said “a statesman is a dead politician”. Truman and Eisenhower were much reviled when they left office but are now regarded as pretty good presidents (as George W. Bush has pointed out, optimistically perhaps). However irrationally, I remain an incurable optimist.
Humphrey Taylor, Chairman, the Harris Poll
Advisor and Contributor,
www.indielitworld.comHumphrey Taylor has been the Chairman of the Harris Poll since 1975, and he has served more recently as the Chairman of the National Council of Public Polls. He is widely regarded as one of the leading pollsters in the world. A product of Cambridge University, Taylor has polled almost continuously his whole career, and his past clients include Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of Great Britain.