Why Do Americans Distrust Their Politicians?

American society seems to be suffering from a pervading feeling of exhaustion on the subject of the U.S. political class. It’s little wonder, then, that candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have enjoyed such large followings in this year’s elections, as they have been viewed as alternatives to the political establishment.

To be clear, we are not speaking simply of politicians’ popularity; we are pointing to an issue that goes much deeper than that: the credibility of the political system. Data from the Pew Research Center has shown that in less than 60 years, the degree of confidence in government has plummeted in the United States, falling from 73 percent in 1958 during the Eisenhower administration to just 24 percent during the Obama administration. By 2011, this number had dropped further still, to 10 percent after having registered the greatest intermediary drop in history.

True, a more pronounced and continuous fall occurred during the Vietnam War, which was fought during the period between the Johnson and Carter administrations—dropping from a peak of 77 percent to just 25 percent—a trend reversed in later years, during the time of Reagan and Clinton. Yet, in spite of such reversals, the gradual loss of governmental prestige over the course of the past several decades seems to be symptomatic of wider trends, something that has been particularly conspicuous during Obama’s government.

So, what happened? What explains such shifts in polling? The reasons certainly are many; yet, for us, the most rational factor to point out, as a hypothesis to be tested, would be American perceptions of their deteriorating quality of life.

From a structural point of view, such dissatisfaction may be said to have a socioeconomic dimension to it since, over the course of the last 30 years, Americans have seen the degree of inequality grow within the country. According to data released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States went from a Gini coefficient of 0.31 in 1980 to almost 0.40 in 2013. As a point of reference, Gini uses a scale running from zero to one to reflect levels of inequality. In a society defined by the principle of the self-made man, the mere perception that equal opportunities are lacking can generate a certain discomfort for those that, at least in theory, should be protecting these same values.

Yet, while the trend in GDP per household has been positive since the beginning of the 1980s, this has not been the case for the trend in the median household income. A gap has thus been opened between the generation of income and worker’s appropriation of said income, something that has sparked both unrest and dissatisfaction. Likewise, the country has registered a progressive fall in the World Happiness Report, a ranking published annually by the United Nations that measures society’s perceptions of its circumstances by taking into account variables including GDP per capita, life expectancy, level of freedom to make choices and the level of corruption, among other factors. From a cyclical standpoint, the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, in turn, may have left a mark that is still affecting the political sphere. Thus, while the U.S. recovery may have seemed to be a sure thing at first, by taking a closer look at these variables it would appear to have been much weaker than initially assumed.

The unemployment rate, meanwhile, has fallen to a great extent, reverting to early 1980s levels, due in large part to low participation in the labor market. Said differently, there are fewer unemployed people since many have simply stopped looking for work and, as a result, they are technically not considered unemployed by virtue of not participating in the labor market. Yet a second factor must also be taken into consideration, namely the recovery’s specific components. Jobs created during the post-financial crisis period may be said to be of a worse quality, with many full-time jobs being replaced by part-time ones. While lowering unemployment, this trade-off has also diminished satisfaction. All of this is to say nothing of the profound impact of America’s two wars in the Middle East as well as changes made to programs like the healthcare system on the American electorate.

When confronted with important everyday issues, Americans must now decide whether or not to interact with people that are substantially frustrated with current political realities. This scenario is serving to inflame an already polarized debate and is stirring up emotions. Could we be headed back to the 1980s?

Fernanda Magnotta is a professor and coordinator of the international relations program at the Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation and received her master’s degree and doctorate through the San Tiago Dantas Graduate Program. She is also a researcher at the Center for International Analyses and Studies housed at São Paulo State University.

João Ricardo Costa Filho is a lecturer in the Economics and Finance Professional Master’s Program at São Paulo School of Economics, Getúlio Vargas Foundation and a professor in the Faculty of Economics at the Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation. He has a master’s degree in business economics through the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo and is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Porto in Portugal.

Fernanda Magnotta, one of the original co-authors, provided assistance to Watching America in translating this article.

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