It’s hard to build trust in government when Mitch McConnell is doing everything he can think of to make it so the federal government cannot function effectively. But, ultimately, the frozen gears in the Capitol are the Republicans’ fault, and the Democrats can’t do much about it. Surely, they can fight to make sure the blame is assigned correctly by the voters, but that alone will do nothing to restore faith in government. In fact, it will only hurt people’s opinion of government by making them more aware of the fact that it isn’t working.
Enter Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio. Noam Scheiber looks at both of them, makes some distinctions between them, and argues that Warren’s version of left-wing populism is a better fit for a period of widespread skepticism about government.
The reason is that it plays directly to the source of today’s anti-government skepticism. While trust in government has been steadily falling since hitting a decades-long peak after 9/11, voters’ particular beef against government changed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Around that time, a variety of indicators suggested that voters’ suspicions were tied to the relationship between the government and powerful interests, whom voters believed were lavishing benefits on themselves at taxpayer expense. Pew found a sharp bipartisan drop in the number of voters who felt “government is really run for the benefit of all the people” beginning in 2009. Gallup found a spike in the number of people dissatisfied with “size and influence of major corporations.” It turns out that many of the voters who’d lost faith in government weren’t anti-government per se. They’d simply concluded it was working for the powerful and not for them.
Where Warren is on the right track is that she is focused on changing the reality and the perception that the government doesn’t work for middle class folks, rather than coming up with programs that will redistribute wealth down to the underclass. The reason that this path is preferable to de Blasio’s is because we can’t garner support for big government programs until we change the people’s perception that Washington is not representing their interests. But that doesn’t mean that we have to eschew big programs. Amy Rothschild argues convincingly that de Blasio’s universal Pre-K proposal will be more popular and long-lasting if it is truly universal, meaning that it is available to the rich as well as the poor. Just like Social Security and Medicare, the universality of the program would protect it from political opponents and keep it from being seen as a government handout.
Still, overall, Sen. Warren’s approach is going to have a broader appeal than de Blasio’s, both among different income groups and in more areas of the country.
In October, a poll for an open Senate seat in South Dakota, a state Republicans carried by 18 points in 2012, showed an obscure Democrat named Rick Weiland down a mere six points to the state’s former Republican governor, Mike Rounds. Weiland’s mantra has been that what afflicts the country isn’t government per se; it’s a government that’s been hijacked by “big-money interests.” South Dakota voters agreed with this statement by a 68-26 margin.
When I spoke to Weiland shortly after the poll came out, he told me he saw himself as a Democrat in the Elizabeth Warren vein. In recent years, other Democrats have succeeded with variations on this message in states as varied as Ohio and Connecticut. De Blasio-style populism may or may not be a “fantasy-based blue state” notion. But Warren’s version is getting remarkable pickup all across America.
I don’t know that Warren’s personality will resonate in places like South Dakota. It might, since she brings an Oklahoman’s sensibility to her rhetoric. But even if she is successfully marginalized as a Massachusetts liberal, her message will resonate when other people voice it. Until we convince people that we’re intent on making government work for them, McConnell’s obstructionist tactics will continue to do more than thwart our present agenda. His tactics will erode the good will we need to try to do big things.