Just weeks after UK voters shocked the world and voted to leave the European Union, we were stunned ourselves here in the United States.
In the last seven days, we have seen the troubling killings of two African-American men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, at the hands of police officers, as well as a racially motivated sniper attack in Dallas that took the lives of five white police officers and wounded nine more.
Political leaders on both sides of the aisle said the right things about the need for racial unity, support for law enforcement, and meaningful criminal-justice reform, but there’s an overwhelming sense that we are a nation without leadership.
We are reeling.
President Obama’s approval rating hovers above 50 percent but by a nine-point margin (49%-40%), Americans think that the country is weaker under his leadership. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that more terrorist attacks are at least somewhat likely in the United States, and 60% disapprove of how Obama has handled ISIS.
The presumptive presidential nominees aren’t faring much better. Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings are underwater.
In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 70 percent of Americans have a negative view of Trump, and 56 percent feel this way “strongly.” This is a 10 percent increase from last month.
Clinton isn’t faring too well herself, but she’s doing much better than Trump. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed view her negatively, which is unchanged from last month.
Negative ratings extend beyond the candidates. The Real Clear Politics average for Congressional job approval stands at 12 percent. Similarly, only 12 percent of Americans approve of the job Republicans are doing in Congress in a recent Quinnipiac survey. And 31 percent approve of how Congressional Democrats are doing their jobs, which is nothing to write home about.
Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that 81 percent of Americans think that politicians put their own interests first, and 79 percent believe that Washington is out of touch. Further, consider various findings from respected polling organizations revealing the entrenched anger in the electorate:
• Only 13 percent of Americans think that our two-party system works
• 60 percent seek a legitimate third party option
• More than half (55 percent) say that they feel helpless in this year’s election.
Is it any surprise that these figures come in an election year when one major-party candidate is under FBI investigation and the other is, well . . . Donald Trump?
And yet, the problems go deeper even than Washington. According to newly released Gallup data, only 21 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in television news, and only 20 percent report similar confidence in newspapers.
The institutions of the private-sector economy are also regarded with suspicion. Large corporations and banks are trusted by a mere 18 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
Just 23 percent have confidence in the criminal-justice system, and less than one-third have confidence in the public school system.
Bottom line: with the exceptions of the military and the police, every major American institution is underwater with the public.
And, of course, the police haven’t had a good week, and views of their performance tend to diverge sharply along racial lines.
You’d never know that institutional confidence has collapsed across the board when you listen to those at the top, who seem to be the last people in the country aware that the American people are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. (We saw such cluelessness in Britain, too, where elites assumed all along that staying in the European Union was a no-brainer.)
This anger cuts across a broad range of issues, and it is exacerbated by the vague but powerful sense many Americans have that the problems are solvable—but for the partisanship, self-dealing, and incompetence of our leaders.
Take health care. About half of Americans oppose President Obama’s signature law. Obama’s pledge—“If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor”—has become one of the most famous broken promises in American history. Medical premiums are projected to increase 10 percent in 2017 among some of the most popular plans (on top of previous double-digit increases). Being able to purchase health insurance across state lines would go a long way toward solving this issue, but it won’t happen. Washington won’t get it done.
Or consider the sheer size of government and its influence. Gallup data shows that Americans are unhappy with government and think it’s too big; 60 percent think the government has too much power, and 55 percent say that they’re dissatisfied with government regulation of businesses and industries.
Unsurprisingly, more Americans would like to see fewer regulations rather than more. But that’s not likely to happen: if anything, the regulation machine seems to be cranking into overdrive.
How about the war being waged on the First Amendment? Recent polling shows that only 56 percent of American adults believe free speech rights are secure (as compared with 73 percent of college students). Just 58 percent of adults believe that freedom to petition the government is secure, and only 64 percent think that freedom of the press is secure. These remarkable numbers reflect the concerns Americans have over “safe space” culture, and the damage done by the “microaggression” movement and other attempts—usually coming from the liberal side of the spectrum—to shut down opposing points of view.
Immigration policy and fears of terrorism were driving factors in the Brits’ decision to leave the EU, and we’re seeing the same anxiety about immigration and terrorism here at home. Consider that a recent Morning Consult poll found that 48 percent of Americans now support Trump’s Muslim ban, and that slightly more respondents trust Trump to keep America safe than Hillary. Americans are thirsting for strong leadership that alleviates their fears and anxieties on these issues.
Americans want educational choice for their children—but millions won’t get it, not tomorrow and not next year. They want entrepreneurial infrastructure to help them start a business and keep it going without the threat of being buried by regulation, but that’s about as likely to happen as Obama saying “radical Islam.” And speaking of radical Islam, yes, Americans want protection from the obviously mounting terror threat—but they have one party that won’t even name the enemy and another whose presumptive nominee makes cartoonish policy pledges that achieve nothing but dividing Americans further.
The sad part is, there is a role for government on almost all of these issues. There is a path forward that begins with our leadership class recognizing how profoundly they have failed the American people and why voters are so disgusted—and ends with smart reforms that prioritize individual empowerment, common sense, and freedom.
In the meantime, the failure of governing elites to address or even acknowledge the broad-based anger with corrupt, incompetent, and unrepresentative leadership will deepen the crisis of confidence and continue to erode the legitimacy of our institutions. Recognizing this reality is Clinton’s deepest challenge; she will not be able to restore trust in her own personal brand without it, especially after FBI Director Comey’s testimony last week. If she continues to skate along without acknowledging this crisis and explaining why she can – even as an establishment candidate – help solve it, her support will be affected.
As for Donald Trump, the opportunity he has, as an outsider candidate, is different. What all of these trends suggest is that Trump, despite his lack of focus as a candidate and his scant resources for the fall campaign, can remain very competitive should he focus on themes related to restoring confidence and credibility in what he called a "rigged" system.
He should also speak to concerns about economic revitalization and job growth, which are as prominent in America as they were in the areas of the UK that voted for Brexit.
In short, Americans’ deep-seated concerns about institutional failure—reflected powerfully in polling data, and shared by Britons in their own moment of truth on Brexit—offer an opening for Trump's flagging presidential campaign. Whether he takes advantage of it remains to be seen.
In sum, the core of American consensus and belief in American ideals is fraying. The country is crying out for a leader to bring us back together.