American Dissatisfaction With Everything Is Reaching Historic Levels

07/03/2014 05:28 pm ET | Updated Jul 06, 2014
Ramin Talaie via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- People are mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore, an extensive new survey of public attitudes toward the government finds.

The study, conducted by EMC Research, relies on three in-depth surveys in late 2013, one by telephone and two on the Internet. When lined up with historical trends on dissatisfaction and alienation, it shows a public that has become increasingly distrustful of the government over the past several decades. Only the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks interrupted that trend, briefly rallying people around their leaders. Within just a few years, that feeling had faded, and faith in government and politicians returned to its steady decline.

The man behind the latest study is Patrick Caddell, who found similar, if less intense, levels of alienation as the pollster for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in the early 1970s. McGovern used Caddell's finding to launch an outsider bid to claim the primary, before going on to lose to Richard Nixon. Caddell went on to find deep distrust within the American people in subsequent years, advising President Jimmy Carter to give his famous "malaise" speech less than a decade later. Caddell is now a regular Fox News contributor.

True, neither McGovern's campaign nor Carter's speech was noted for its popular success at the time. But Caddell thinks the dissatisfaction that was building then among Americans may finally demand action.

While today's disaffection is partly due to the economy, Caddell argues that something deeper is going on. Two-thirds of the survey's respondents felt that they have no say in government, with 73 percent believing the government does not rule with the consent of the people.

"People like to say that the country is more divided than ever," Caddell said, "but in fact the country is united about one thing: that the political class does not represent them, that the system is rigged against them. There is a belief that the system is rigged, and that's what we need to understand."

Caddell and a team of allies are using the study as a springboard to launch We Need Smith, a populist version of the Americans Elect effort that flopped in its campaign to draw a corporate, centrist presidential candidate into the 2012 election with the promise of tens of millions of dollars in backing. Caddell argues that the Americans Elect approach was wildly out of touch and that popular disaffection with the two parties does not mean that voters crave a bland centrist. What they want, he thinks, is someone in the mold of the Jimmy Stewart character who challenged government corruption in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

We Need Smith is also being led by Bob Perkins, a former senior official with the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee, and Scott Miller, founder of the Sawyer/Miller Group and a marketing and communications consultant who has worked in both Republican and Democratic national campaigns. There is clearly a sizable chunk of money behind the effort, though Caddell declined to specify the source or its specific motivations.

Perkins said the group is being launched around the nation's birthday as a way to highlight its founding ideals.

"While the political elites have purposely divided our nation, the Fourth of July reminds us how we united to seize our own future from the British. Similarly, We Need Smith aims to unite, showing Americans that they aren't alone in their frustrations. No single issue has united all voters like this reform platform," he said.

Caddell sees in the survey results a mainstream America that feels increasingly at odds with government.

"The dispute that the public has with Washington and the political class is obviously at record levels," he said. "A lot of this is due to a sense in the public that Washington does not represent them and that, in fact, they are the victims of Washington rather than the beneficiaries."

The study asked Americans about a hypothetical election among former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and "Candidate Smith," who ran on a platform of fundamental reform. Smith won in a landslide, taking more votes than Clinton and Christie combined -- 55, 24 and 12 percent, respectively.

Americans were surveyed about more than just their preferred presidential candidate, however. The survey also asked about their level of trust in government, the degree to which they felt politicians cared about mainstream Americans and their outlook for the future.

Seventy-nine percent said they trust the government to do what is right only some of the time, with as few as 15 percent having faith in the government to do what is right most of the time or just about always.

The long-running American National Election Studies has been asking similar questions for years. When presented with the statement, "Politicians really care about people like me," 75 percent in its 2013 poll disagreed, the highest percentage since 1952 when ANES began asking this question. Ten years ago, only 50 percent disagreed with that statement.

"Poor economic conditions are often a major reason why Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the nation and disapprove of government leaders," wrote Jeffrey Jones for Gallup Politics last month.

While the Great Recession of 2007 was declared officially over in 2009, America has experienced little economic growth and slow job recovery since then. The number of jobs lost in the recession had been regained as of last month, but there are currently 17 million unemployed and underemployed with only 4.5 million job openings, which means the economic recovery is not yet finished.

It makes sense that when their personal finances are so hard hit, Americans' view of politics sours. Caddell's study largely reflects what other pollsters are reporting: a significant level of dissatisfaction with the United States, which is affecting the favorability ratings of both individual politicians and political institutions.

Obama's current approval rating hovers around the mid-40s, while Congress is facing historically low approval ratings.

A study released by Gallup this week shows that confidence in all three branches of government is at new or near-historic lows, with Gallup's Justin McCarthy adding, "There should be concern that now fewer than one in 10 Americans have confidence in their legislative body."

Meanwhile, new studies find that Americans have more faith in the military and the police than in any of the three branches of federal government, and that Americans are less satisfied with their freedom than they were seven years ago.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that We Need Smith is a populist version of the No Labels effort. It is a version of the Americans Elect effort.

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