From three stories in today’s newspapers: A president’s capitulation on campaign-cash reform; a governor’s shady gifts; and a congressman’s sordid fall, followed by his waltz through Washington’s gilded revolving door. It’s getting so you can’t scan the news without questioning whether the foundation of a representative democracy – trust in our leaders – is irreversibly shaken.
A fourth story: A Harvard survey of more than 3,100 voters under 30 found that faith in most major institutions is in steep decline. Only 39 percent of young votes trust the president to do the right thing. Just 18 percent trust Congress. Both of those percentages are down from 2010.
It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots between these four stories: The nation’s political institutions are broken, its leadership failed, and the public is fed up.
“If you are 24 years old, all you know is petty partisan politics while big issues aren’t getting addressed, while the economy is still struggling,” Trey Grayson, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard told New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg while previewing the survey. “So you wonder whether the governing institutions of your country are up to the task.”
They are not. As I’ve written many times, the problem is much broader than Washington or even the nation’s statehouses. With the exception of the military, Americans are losing faith in virtually every social institution – big business, small business, organized religion, schools, police, the media, the entertainment industry and even entities steeped in tradition such as the Boy Scouts. The list is endless.
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At a macro level, the problem is that society is rapidly changing via technology and the radical connectivity of individuals, and our institutions are slow to adapt. That certainly applies to Washington, where Republicans and Democrats are threatened by the Internet’s hyper-democratization of a process they once monopolized: Organizing and motivating voters.
Coupled with this new phenomenon is an old one: Corrupt and hypocritical leadership. Which brings me back to three headlines:
“Obama Faulted On Campaign Reform:” Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post methodically detailed President Obama’s failure to curb the influence of special interest, a cornerstone of his hope-and-change brand. Her list includes: the transformation of Obama’s re-election campaign into an advocacy group that collects unlimited donations; the failure to pursue a promised constitutional amendment to overturn a Supreme Court opinion enabling corporate campaign donations; the failure to fill a position overseeing ethics and lobbying issues, created two years ago to promote Obama's reformist credentials; a neglected Federal Election Commission; and Obama’s original sin of rejecting public financing in 2008. Obama shattered fund-raising records in 2012.
Seven reform groups sent the president a letter on Monday expressing their “deep concern about the nation’s corrupt campaign finance system and about your failure, to date, as president to provide meaningful leadership or take effective action to solve this fundamental problem facing our democracy.”
The White House and its allies blame Republicans, justifiably so, for obstructing reform. But, like the rest of his agenda, blaming the GOP for the lack of political reform is a dodge: Obama vowed to change the culture of Washington – period. He didn’t include a caveat for pesky opposition.
“All Puns Asides, Weiner Makes Lucrative Name in Consulting:” Former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., left Congress disgraced by his seamy Twitter habits. Recently, he sought a return to public life by portraying himself as a stay-at-home-dad making amends. But the New York Times’ Michael Barbaro reported that Weiner made nearly $500,000 trading on his connections. “Things,” Weiner said, “kind of came over the transom.”
How convenient. Barbaro linked Weiner's cash grab to “the enduring power of Washington’s revolving door” and said the ex-congressman's lucrative second career “raises questions about the speed with which he cashed in on his government connections.”
The striking thing about Weiner’s story is that it’s not really striking. Conflicts of interest abound in Washington, where people serve government while finagling private-sector parachutes.
“Probe is Looking at Donors, Governor:” The Washington Post reported that FBI agents are investigating the relationship between Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, his wife, Maureen, and a major campaign donor who allegedly paid $15,000 for the food at the wedding of the McDonnell’s daughter. Jonnie R. Williams Sr. and his firm, Star Scientific, gave McDonnell and his political action committee more than $12,000 in publicly disclosed contributions. The governor’s family received other perks, including the use of Williams’ vacation home.
McDonnell has said that Williams is a friend, which presumably is why the first family has promoted Star Scientific at the state-owned governor’s mansion. Whether or not the governor broke any law, he is at a minimum guilty of public relations malpractice.
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Stories like these three deepen public cynicism. Young voters, in particular, expect more of their leaders because they were weaned on technologies that, in the words of Harvard professor Nicco Mele “empower the individual at the expense of existing institutions and ancient social structures.”
In a new book, “The End of Big,” Mele argues that Americans are not only as mad as hell they are, individually, more powerful. Angry Americans can unite and fix what's broken. The questions is whether they're willing to do so. For instance, campaign finance ranked 21st out of 22 issues in a recent Pew Research Center poll, according to the Post. And so it goes.
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