Legitimation Crisis in the US: Why Have Americans Lost Trust in Government?

Legitimation Crisis in the US: Why Have Americans Lost Trust in Government?

by November 2, 2016

Legitimation Crisis: Elections normally decide who is to govern. This upcoming election is about the very legitimacy of the system.

At the final presidential debate, Republican candidate Donald Trump made the remarkable statement that he might not accept the outcome of the election. Even putting this rancorous and divisive presidential election aside, trust in the federal government in general has been in decline for decades.

In 1964 over 70 percent of Americans recorded having trust in the institution, according to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center. By November 2015 it had fallen to 19 percent, less than one in five of Americans. A recent Gallup Poll survey reveals only 20 percent trust in the presidency. Low. But not as low as the only six percent who trust Congress.

Trust and confidence in government waxes and wanes; an unpopular war or economic recession deflates the numbers only to be reinflated when the war ends or when the economy picks up. But the ending of the long postwar boom and the declining confidence in economic globalization have raised a structural rather than just a temporal crisis of confidence.

There are a number of potential crises in democratic capitalist societies. As outlined by German sociologist Jurgen Habermas, they are: fiscal crisis when government expenditure is more than revenue; economic crisis when the economy fails to meet popular expectations; or rationality crisis when there is a failure to make the correct decisions.

The economic recovery is slow, fiscal constraints hobble much needed long-term investment in physical and education infrastructure, and Congress either refuses to pass legislation or enacts legislation that benefits special interests rather than addressing the national interest.

How have all these trends coalesced to undermine popular support for the institution of government and not just the officeholders of government? There are four clear trends at play.

One: A hollowed-out middle

The U.S. blue-collar middle class has been in decline since at least 1975, and this decline has been accelerating since 2000. Many factors are at work, but one of the most visible is deindustrialization.

Manufacturing jobs once provided the platform to the middle class for non-college-educated workers, but those good-paying, secure jobs have declined dramatically. There were more than 18 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. in 1984. By 2012 it was little over 12 million.

There are many causes for this shrinking workforce, foremost among them technological progress that reduces the need for human labor, declining unionization that reduces labor’s bargaining power and trade policies that have made it easier for foreign manufacturers to import their cheaper goods.

Globalization is the shorthand name given to this constellation of changes that have led to low-wage growth for non-college-educated workers and a decline in industrial cities and regions across the country. The two mainstream political parties have failed to adequately address the concerns of the people affected.

Republican politicians have promoted anti-union measures that aided business but undermined the organized power of blue-collar workers.

Meanwhile, the Democratic administrations of Clinton and Obama have pursued an economic agenda that promoted globalization. If the Republicans had a trickle-down theory that posited, despite evidence to the contrary, making the rich richer benefits everyone, the Democratic equivalent was that the benefits of globalization would eventually raise all boats.

In the long term, maybe. But in the short to medium term, where we actually live, it has negatively impacted the bottom 50 percent.

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