One of the main reasons American politics has been upended in recent years is that a growing number of Americans believe that leaders do not represent their interests. This simple sentiment underlies almost every recent problem in American politics. Yet for some reason hardly anyone has engaged in the process of understanding how it happened and how to fix it.
It’s hard to trust elected officials if you think they’re out to line their pockets. Voters also do not trust politicians who appear to prioritize foreign interests or special interests over their own well-being. These are precisely the sentiments that many voters feel today.
It is now more than six years since the American political class was given clear warning that their voters were not satisfied. In those six years, almost no effort has been made to understand why voters are so frustrated and discouraged. It is much easier for a politician to bemoan the state of the country than to look inwardly at a system that clearly needs reform. Go to any after-work dinner or trade association meeting in Washington, DC, and you’ll hear a lot of complaints about the collapse of the political system – which it did. What you probably won’t hear, however, is a lot of soul-searching or proposed solutions. Trust in government continues to crumble year after year, to depths previously unimaginable, and those in power still refuse to seek solutions. Until they do, the system will not heal. If they’re ever interested in getting started, here’s a good place to start.
No. 1: The culture of Washington.
The era of the citizen legislator is definitely over. George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson served the country, then left politics to return to their farms. Many civic-minded leaders have since made stints in Washington as part of their business, military, or other careers. Today’s leaders make trips to Washington to make inroads into the corporate lobbying community. Their time in Congress is, in essence, a test drive for a career in corporate influence. It may sound overheated, but the numbers tell the story. Incumbent members of Congress are now more likely to go into the lucrative field of corporate influence than not. More than 50% of those who leave Congress take this route.
With a highly regulated economy, there is nothing wrong with companies hiring people to protect their interests. There is something wrong with a system where the majority of elected officials get into this business.
This raises obvious questions: Who do these people represent when they’re in Congress? When the interests of their constituents conflict with the interests of their potential future employers, whose side are they on? Many Republicans ignore this inherent tension because they believe that what’s good for American business is good for America. With many large corporations more focused on profit growth in China or other overseas markets than with their former US businesses, those days, if they ever existed, are clearly over. Interests are not necessarily aligned. Anyone who has walked through the thousands of once-thriving American communities decimated in the past 20 to 30 years of record corporate profits knows this is the case. And if that is indeed the case, then there is a huge problem when the majority in Congress is really trying to get jobs by lobbying for big international corporations.
If members of Congress started to really address this issue, complicated as it is, they would be taking the first step in rebuilding the lost trust.
No. 2: Prioritize American interests.
In a representative democracy, politicians are expected to represent the interests of their constituents. Many voters aren’t convinced that’s happening. High-level Americans have thrived on United States trade, immigration, and economic policies. The giver class gets things done. Others feel left out of the process. Wall Street and US multinationals in particular have prospered fueling the rise of a newly assertive China and its rapidly growing economy. Whether these policies benefited average Americans is much more uncertain.
Voters also worry that their leaders are not focused enough on real American interests. There are legitimate humanitarian concerns around the world. These concerns should be taken into account when leaders consider things like immigration and foreign policy. Most voters would agree. The problem is that many voters view their elected officials as even more concerned with these sorts of issues than they are with their own interests. They see their communities stagnate (or worse) and fear that opportunities are shrinking.
America has benefited immensely from immigration, but America cannot continue to be a stable country with a wide-open border. The country is headed for a debt crisis, but the idea of asking other countries to pay for benefits granted to them by Washington seems foreign to American leaders.
It’s not always the case. America has no closer ally than England. Yet in the early 1940s, when England was in its greatest distress and asked America for help, that help was not structured as a gift funded by American taxpayers. It was structured as a loan to be repaid by another wealthy country.
Many Americans are convinced that their politicians no longer care about these trivial matters. They’re spending American taxpayers’ money around the world on lots of things that don’t directly benefit Americans (or even more benefit Americans than themselves), and they don’t even seem to consider being reimbursed. Why should American taxpayers foot the security bill for other rich countries? Why should America unilaterally shut down its fossil fuel industry in the name of climate change just to allow China and India to take over? Are Chinese coal emissions better for the climate than US natural gas emissions? These are reasonable questions that many Americans are asking. They don’t find many politicians vigorously taking up this mantle.
American citizens would like to see American interests taken into account more in these decisions. Doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.
Neil Patel co-founded The Daily Caller, one of the fastest growing online news outlets in the United States, which regularly publishes news and distributes it to more than 15 million monthly readers.