A recent Pew Research poll found that only 24 percent of Americans trust the government in Washington. This says a lot about U.S. politics, but it doesn't answer the question: which politicians can we trust?
Trust in the federal government reached its zenith in 2001, just after 9/11, and has been declining since. It descended to the twentieth percentiles at the beginning of the great recession and has remained there. (A December Gallup poll studied the most "trustworthy" US professions. The bottom two professions were "Members of Congress" and "Lobbyists.")
Pew Research observed that all segments of the American political spectrum do not trust the federal government. However, trust is lowest among conservatives (7 percent among "Steadfast Conservatives" and 16 percent among "Business Conservatives") and highest among liberals (39 percent among "Faith and Family Left" and 32 percent among "Solid Liberals").
This Pew finding helps us understand the difference in voting patterns in the 2014 mid term elections. Conservatives, who had high voting rates, went to the polls to "get the bastards out." On the other hand, liberals, who had low voting rates, weren't as motivated. In key states, many Democratic candidates lost because their base didn't bother to vote. Writing in the Washington Post, political scientists Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov observed, "The Democrats... lost in part because they could not depend on their own supporters to encourage their friends to turn out and vote Democratic."
In addition to differential voting rates, low trust in the federal government explains the frequent complaint that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. While there are important values and policies differences between the two parties, many voters believe that the culture of Washington corrupts whoever is sent there. Conservative commentator Chuck Baldwin observed, "The truth is, who we send to Washington, D.C., with very few exceptions, hasn't made a dime's worth of difference in decades... No matter which [Party] wins, establishment insiders get the prize, and the American people get the shaft."
Nonetheless, within the Washington political culture there's a critical distinction between the insiders and outsiders. In her most recent book, "A Fighting Chance," Senator Elizabeth Warren recounts a spring 2009 conversation with Larry Summers, then President Obama's most senior economic adviser:
Warren chose to be an outsider.
[Summers said] I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don't listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas... But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don't criticize other insiders.
Senator Warren's outsider credentials were prominently displayed during the recent congressional vote on the $1.1 trillion 2015 spending bill(called "Cromnibus" because it was a combination "omnibus bill" and a "continuing resolution".) The most controversial aspect of the bill was a provision designed by Citibank that guts a portion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. On December 12th, Senator Warren blasted this rider:
The American people are disgusted by Wall Street bailouts. And yet here we are -- five years after Dodd-Frank - with Congress on the verge of ramming through a provision that would do nothing... but raise the risk that taxpayers will have to bail out the biggest banks once again.... Enough is enough. Washington already works really well for the billionaires and big corporations and the lawyers and lobbyists. But what about the families who lost their homes or their jobs or their retirement savings the last time Citi bet big on derivatives and lost?... We were sent here to fight for those families, and it's time - it's past time - for Washington to start working for them.
Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum explained that insider Democratic negotiators permitted the revision to Dodd-Frank "in exchange for more funding for the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission." Drum quoted Democratic negotiator Jim Moran, "In 20 years of being on the appropriations bill, I haven't seen a better compromise in terms of Democratic priorities... we got virtually everything that the Democrats tried to get."
Writing for the Campaign for America's Future Robert Borosage made the progressive case against Cromnibus:
[It] guarantees another year of growing inequality and declining security for most Americans. Once more, vital investments are shortchanged. Once more, austerity is favored over jobs. Once more, the bill is larded with what the [Washington Post] calls "regrettable, not cataclysmic" special interest giveaways.
The negotiations over Cromnibus show why Americans don't trust the government in Washington. While no sensible citizen wants the Federal government to shut down, most of us are sick of special-interest giveaways. Someone has to stop them.
Progressives will remember the fighting words of Senator Warren, "We were sent here to fight for [middle class] families, and it's time - it's past time - for Washington to start working for them... Enough is enough." Warren remains a Washington outsider and, therefore, she's a politician we can trust.