America Wants a New Political Beginning

From a Wall Street Journal column by William A. Galston headlined “America Is Desperate for a New Beginning”:

We don’t need polls to tell us that confidence in our political institutions is at a low ebb, but they do help clarify what Americans are feeling.

In a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, 10% of Americans reported that thinking about U.S. politics made them feel hopeful, and 4% were excited. By contrast, 55% said they were angry, and 65% were exhausted.

This isn’t the first poll to note a pervasive sense of exhaustion, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Americans are tired of partisan quarrels that rarely reach a resolution. Issues like immigration reform linger for decades, and the Supreme Court has brought new ones such as abortion back into the arena.

Joe Biden was elected, in part, to calm this turbulence. Historians will debate whether he could have done so had he pursued a different agenda, but clearly his administration hasn’t reduced division, whether over economics, culture or foreign policy.

Americans blame both parties about equally for this situation. According to Pew, 60% of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party, and 61% have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party.

A recent CBS poll found that 54% of respondents regard the Republican Party as “extreme,” one of the favorite epithets of Democrats describing the GOP. But the same percentage also regards the Democrats as extreme, and only minorities think that either political party is “reasonable.

It isn’t surprising that the share of Americans with unfavorable views of both parties has reached a record high (28%), up from only 6% three decades ago, or that 37% wish there were more parties from which to choose. Nor is it surprising that challenges to the major-party duopoly are proliferating—from Cornel West’s Green Party and a likely No Labels bipartisan centrist ticket to the insurgent candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose grievances against Democratic Party officials seem to multiply by the day.

Voters might be in a better mood if they believed that these third-party campaigns were likely to improve the political system. But two-thirds of the public think it’s unlikely that an independent candidate will win in the next 25 years, and only 26% say that having more political parties would make it easier to solve the nation’s problems. (About the same proportion believe that additional parties would make problem-solving harder.)

Until an insurgency even stronger than Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign challenges these beliefs, Americans seem resigned to the choices the major parties offer, even if they don’t like them. The prospect of a rematch between Mr. Biden and Donald Trump leaves large majorities deeply dissatisfied: According to CBS, 64% of registered voters regard this outcome of the primary process as evidence that the political system is “broken.”

The reservations about Mr. Biden are well-known. He is seen as lacking the mental sharpness and physical stamina to carry out the duties of the presidency for a second term. Only 34% of Americans believe that he would be able to complete a second term. Expect Republicans to begin arguing that a vote for Mr. Biden is a vote for President Kamala Harris.

The reservations about Mr. Trump’s return to the Oval Office are very different. More than half of all Americans believe that if he gets another term, he will try to gain more presidential power than he had during his first, and 75% think that is a bad thing. Expect Democrats to argue that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for autocracy.

Public discontent with our national institutions goes well beyond the conduct of the political parties and their candidates. Only 27% of Americans think that our political system is working “very” or “somewhat” well, only 37% express confidence in its future, and trust in the federal government has declined to 16%, near the record low. Disapproval of Congress is nothing new, but disapproval of the Supreme Court is, with 54% of Americans now expressing an unfavorable view of the court. Whatever its jurisprudential merits, the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade has accelerated the decline in the court’s public standing.

The country needs a new beginning, a reordering of policy and rhetoric in both political parties. Instead, we have a frozen politics. Donald Trump seems likely to win his party’s nomination for the third consecutive time. Joe Biden first ran for national office more than half a century ago, and he first ran for president in 1988.

This is truly the winter of our discontent, with no sun of York to unfreeze our politics. Both parties need a generational turnover in 2028, but we will probably have to wait five years for it. I hope we make it,

William A. Galston writes the weekly Politics & Ideas column in the Wall Street Journal. He holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow.

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