What bipartisan budget agreement suggests for future of American democracy

The media and many of our nation’s policymakers, are hailing the budget agreement as an example of bipartisanship and constructive legislating. But what Congress passed this week simply means our country will avoid a second government shutdown in the span of a few months -- a rather low bar for our democracy.

Even more disappointing, not one appropriations bill has actually survived both chambers, and this Congress had passed just 55 bills of any kind as of December 1, the lowest number ever. 

If you want to feel depressed about the sheer inefficiency of our Congress, compare it to the years 1963-64.


During that period, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act (launching the War on Poverty and creating Head Start, Job Corps, and many other programs); the Food Stamp Act (institutionalizing food stamps as a permanent federal welfare program); the Federal Transit Act (providing federal aid for mass transportation); the Library Services and Construction Act (offering federal aid for libraries); the Community Mental Health Centers Act (de-institutionalizing many mental health patients); the Clean Air Act (the first federal environmental law allowing citizens to sue polluters); the Wilderness Act (protecting nine million acres of federal land); the Equal Pay Act (addressing wage discrimination by sex); the Civil Rights Act (ending de jure racial segregation in the United States); and the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (rapidly escalating the Vietnam War).

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Very few people today would endorse all of those bills.

In fact, the American people don’t necessarily want Congress to pass the most or the biggest laws.

But in 1964, Americans were very satisfied with the performance of Congress. That year, more than three-quarters of adults told the American National Election Study (ANES) that the government in Washington generally did the right thing. By 2012, just 39.5 percent generally trusted the Federal Government. And at times during 2013, just 9 percent of adults have told Gallup they approve of the job Congress is doing. 

All of this creates a disaffecting environment for young people who are learning about politics and citizenship.

High school students still read in textbooks about how the legislature is designed to work, and how government depends on the consent of the governed. But Congress passes virtually no bills, and almost all adults seem to despise the government. 

The historical trends for young people are even more striking. According to the ANES data, in 1964, 82.1% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 trusted government most of the time. By 2012, that number was down to 44.8%. They were more enthusiastic than their elders at both times but the decline was much between 1964 and 2012. 

This is compounded by another problem. At times in our history, we have seen people distrust the national government but trust one another. That combination encourages populist reform proposals like term limits, referenda, and campaign finance reform that increase the people's control over the government. However, today we are living in a time when Americans trust "the people" almost as little as they trust the government in Washington.

In 1972, when the question was first asked, almost half of Americans told the General Social Survey that, "generally speaking … most people can be trusted." By 2012, that proportion was below one-third. 

Again, the decline has been more pronounced for young people. Even in 1972, Americans under 30 were less trusting than their elders, but by 2012, just one in five young adults told the General Social Survey that most people could be trusted. Meanwhile, Pew Research Center reports that a "dwindling majority [of Americans] say they have a good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions.” 

If you grow up not trusting the government and not trusting your fellow Americans, you will not admire the political system, but you will also be unmoved by proposals to reform it by empowering the people. That combination is a recipe for cynicism and withdrawal. Unless we want to live in that environment of distrust and suffer its consequences for many decades to come, we must change the situation quickly.

Better governance would certainly help, and that will require more than short-term budget fixes that forestall disastrous shutdowns. Young people will be impressed by policies that are actually designed to improve the country.

Better civic education would also help, as long as it acknowledges young people's valid critiques of government and helps them understand their power to reform politics, as preceding generations have done.

It would also help if government empowered citizens again, so that we began to share in governance instead of regarding it as something done to us. That could mean experiments with participatory budgeting (in which citizens deliberate and then allocate public funds), expanded voluntary national and community service programs, and support for organizations like community development corporations and health centers that engage citizens. If you want the people to trust government, you must trust the people to govern.

We don't know which of these strategies would work, but we haven't seriously tried any of them recently. As those deeply worrisome trends in trust show, we can no longer afford to wait.