Americans agree: Politics doesn’t solve most problems

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Our friends at the Pew Research Center have some new political survey results out, and the numbers are…not encouraging. The research summary finds:

…in a striking change since just last year, there has been a sharp rise in the share of Americans who say the country cannot solve many of its important problems, from 41% then to 56% today. Americans have even become more skeptical of the public’s political wisdom.

In addition, President Biden’s approval rating is currently at 37%. While half of Americans say they are very or somewhat confident in Biden’s ability to respond effectively to a natural disaster, ratings for his handling of other issues, including the economy and working effectively with Congress, are in the mid-to-high 30% range. Congress itself has an approval rating of just 26%.

Looking at the Supreme Court, 48% say they have a favorable opinion. Views of the Court are little changed from last summer but are much lower than in recent years when roughly two-thirds of the public expressed a favorable opinion of the court. The partisan gap is significant here: about two-thirds of Republicans (68%) say they have a favorable view of the Supreme Court, while only 31% of Democrats say the same.

Perhaps more fundamentally, only about a quarter of adults (23%) say they have at least “a good deal” of trust in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions, compared with 76% who have either “not very much” (63%) trust in their fellow Americans’ political wisdom or “none at all” (13%). Here, though, the partisan divide basically vanishes. About the same proportion of Republicans (23%) and Democrats (24%) say they have a “very great deal” or a “good deal” of trust in the political wisdom of the American people. Supermajorities in both parties (77% of Republicans and 75% of Democrats) express “not very much” or “no confidence” in the political wisdom of other Americans.

These results seem to present a pretty bleak outlook for solving major problems in the future, but perhaps it’s the “political” part that’s the real problem. Americans are pessimistic about trying to solve everything through elections and political processes for a reason – politics breeds conflict, anger, resentment, and zero-sum thinking. Market processes, on the other hand, are based on consent, cooperation, and positive-sum outcomes.

The silver lining to the lack of trust in “political wisdom” of our fellow Americans is that it could motivate Americans to stop looking to Washington, D.C. for answers to their problems and focus on local concerns they can solve themselves. A lot of political activism hinges on the idea that if your team or tribe wins the right elections, they can make all of your problems go away. Not only is that not likely to happen, to the extent that we spend our time and money cheering on the red or blue team, it bleeds away the resources that we could have been using to build stronger communities in the places we actually live.

Most Americans don’t currently think that the government is going able to solve many problems, and I agree with them. The real question is: are we going to do some of that ourselves, or just sit around and complain?

We also covered this topic on Episode 16 of the Free the Economy podcast; the Pew Center survey segment starts around 1:05 in.