How distrust in government doomed the Biden agenda

Progressives have a bigger problem than Joe Manchin

LBJ and Joe Manchin.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Progressives are angry — and the target of their rage is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

The decision to focus their ire on Manchin makes political sense, since it was his stated refusal to support the roughly $1.75 trillion Build Back Better act that has, at least for now, doomed its passage. But of course Manchin isn't the only senator with misgivings about the bill. In addition to all 50 Republicans in the chamber and the equally outspoken Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D), there were other Democrats who shared many of Manchin's concerns while remaining silent, content to let him take the heat.

But the progressives have a bigger problem than a single stick-in-the-mud senator from Appalachia — and even bigger than the Democratic Party's razor-thin majorities in Congress. Both of those problems are ultimately a function of a broader disconnect between progressive ambitions and the state of American public opinion. Not only do self-described progressives add up to less than 10 percent of the American electorate, but their desire to spend large sums of money and launch big, new social programs places them out of step with widespread distrust in the federal government's capacity to address complex national problems with competence.

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Until the level of trust in government begins to rise, progressives will find themselves facing disappointments like this one again and again, even if they run Manchin himself out of office.

Polling on the question of public trust in government is both solid and extremely consistent. Gallup has been looking at the issue since 1997. Back then, 51 percent of respondents had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the federal government to handle domestic problems. This surged to higher than 70 percent after 9/11 but sank back to the high 40s by the time former President George W. Bush left office. It rose back to 51 percent by the end of former President Barack Obama's first term and has declined for much of the intervening time, hitting a low of 35 percent in 2019. Today the number has slightly rebounded to 39 percent.

Of the three branches of government, the courts are consistently trusted the most and Congress the least. Our lawmakers are trusted by barely more than a third of the country, down from nearly two thirds less than two decades ago.

State and local governments fair quite a bit better in Gallup's tracking, with 57 percent trusting in the former and 66 percent trusting in the latter in 2021. Trust in both levels of government fell a lot between 1998 and 2003, but it's been generally stable since, suggesting levels of trust in government may partly be a function of its distince from the individual.

Gallup's numbers are, if anything, too generous to Washington. The Pew Research Center has been looking at trust in government even longer than Gallup and finds just 24 percent Americans willing to say they trust Washington to do what's right "just about always" or "most of the time." And the peak of trust in the federal government? As one might expect, it hit 77 percent in mid-October 1964, about a month before President Lyndon B. Johnson (D) won re-election in an historic landslide, setting a high-water mark for progressive liberalism and serving as a mandate for the last major expansion of the welfare state.

We live a very different reality today — and it's one where distrust in government receives frequent confirmation.

Not all the news is bad. The Trump administration deserves credit for hastening the production of several effective vaccines with Operation Warp Speed. And both parties came together to quickly pass the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in March 2020, which significantly softened the economic blow of the pandemic. The same goes for the $900 billion extension of benefits that passed in late December 2020.

But beyond that? Congress and the Biden White House followed up the $900 billion extension with an additional $1.9 trillion in spending just four months later. That's likely contributing to inflation. Much of the public-health side of the pandemic has been disorganized and counterproductive, with far less accomplished by way of effective response than other countries have managed. Schools have been overly cautious in the face of COVID-19, with children often suffering the educational, social, and psychological consequences. Violent crime is surging in cities across the country. The military's withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was a chaotic mess.

The list is long and varied, touching on a wide range of government responsibilities at the federal, state, and local levels. In each case, those tasked with securing and advancing the public good ended up validating distrust in government to use its power wisely. No wonder voters responded to the prospect of Congress passing a large package of new spending and social programs with lukewarm support and vague apprehension. (Individual items in the package have often polled better.)

Given this discouraging reality, progressives would be smart to scale down their plans and set about laying a foundation for future expansions of government. Rather than attempting to restructure sectors of the American economy dealing with child care, prescription drugs, and energy, they should seek, instead, to build back the trust of the American electorate by setting limited goals and achieving them with competence and alacrity. This holds for pandemic response, but also for crime and other issues of pressing concern to voters.

If they could accomplish that, progressives might find that they commanded enough popular support to push forward with a more ambitious set of policies. They might even manage it without needing to placate the demands of 70-something senator from West Virginia.

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