Some seasoned political analysts in both parties believe that the Tea Party movement will soon be a footnote to political history. In recent months, several polls by various survey research organizations have bolstered that prediction.
Gallup polls, for instance, found that the percentage of Americans who identify with the Tea Party fell from 33 percent in November 2010 to 25 percent. The movement’s strong supporters (14 percent) were outnumbered by its strong opponents (22 percent). When asked whether a Tea Party endorsement would make them more likely or less likely to support a candidate, 23 percent of Americans said more likely; 42 percent said less likely. Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll found that more people (43 percent) had a negative view of the Tea Party than had a positive view (36 percent) of it.
But whether or not the Tea Party movement fades into the political woodwork, the fact remains that anti-Washington sentiment runs wider and deeper than ever before.
In other recent Gallup polls, a record-low 13 percent of the electorate (9 percent of Independents, 15 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of Republicans) approved of Congress. This pox on Congress came on the heels of a survey asking whether, compared with how Washington has “dealt with the nation’s problems in the past,” President Obama and the current Congress are doing better, worse or about the same: “worse” beat “better” by nearly 4 to 1, and 39 percent labeled today’s national government the “worst ever.”
And in a just-released Gallup poll concerning how people perceive 24 business sectors plus the federal government, a record-high 63 percent expressed a very negative or somewhat negative view of Washington (the only worse rating was for the oil industry, at 64 percent).
Even more revealing (and chilling), a Rasmussen poll in August found that a record-low 17 percent of voters “feel the federal government has the consent of the governed.”
Several Republican presidential hopefuls sound anything but hopeful regarding our national government. For instance, Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas and as of this writing his party’s front runner, has rejected former Pr esident George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” denounced Bush’s record as it relates to expanding Medicare and other federal programs and said he wishes to render the national government as “inconsequential” as possible in Americans’ lives. Another Rasmussen survey in August found that a plurality of Americans (38 percent) share Governor Perry’s wish.
Public opinion is more positive when pollsters ask about particular federal agencies or programs rather than about the Congress or Washington in general. But only a handful of federal agencies now receive approval ratings above 50 percent, and only a few, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NASA and the F.B.I., routinely exceed 50 percent approval.
Mass public disaffection for state and local government has also been increasing. Over the last quarter-century, the fraction of citizens who express a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust and confidence in state and local governments fell by 11 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
A decade ago this month, Americans mourned lives lost to terrorist attacks and marveled at how so many good citizens, including so many public-spirited federal, state and local government officials and workers, risked all and rose to the occasion. It was not long, however, before the partisan political infighting, bureaucracy bashing and cynicism about our democratic institutions resumed and reached new highs.
In the 1939 movie classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Jimmy Stewart plays the young U.S. Senator Jefferson Smith, a sentimental patriot who combats political corruption that stretches from his small town to Capitol Hill. In his Senate floor filibuster, he pleads with his listeners not to lose faith in their government: “Get up there with that lady that’s on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty.... And it’s not too late.... Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here; you just have to see them again.” Amen.