The Promise and Limitations of Populist Reform

By Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin

As the ideological group most committed to activist government, progressives have a special duty to strive for the best social and economic outcomes achievable and the widest public support possible for the major institutions of government. Right now, we are failing on both fronts. The economic status of many working families remains precarious while public trust in government is abysmal.

Much of the blame can be heaped on an obstructionist right blocking policies designed to help working families and on the priorities of conservatives in Congress and state legislatures seeking to advance the agenda of the wealthy. But progressives’ own deficiencies in articulating a vision of government that links collective action to individual empowerment and opportunity, and in defending the institutions of government from the predatory influence of outside interests, has also contributed to the steep decline in public support for government.

Voters today, particularly the white working class voters that Stan Greenberg focuses on in his strong article, have little confidence that government can address the most serious problems facing the country, spend taxpayer wisely on the right priorities, and provide real accountability and make necessary changes when actions fail. These voters are not libertarians.  They believe that government plays a vital role in protecting people from hardship and expanding economic opportunity.

What they do not see at all is a government capable of putting aside personal agendas, partisan concerns, and the narrow interests of corporations and the wealthy to serve the greater public good and their own economic standing.

As Stan argues correctly, progressives must take this challenge of trust in government seriously if they want to maintain electoral strength and build long-term support for progressive policy solutions. “Championing reform of government and the political process is the price of admission with these voters,” he writes.

Evidence across multiple survey research and communications projects confirms his ideas about the potential of a government reform message. Candidates and activists would be wise to develop these narratives for 2016 and beyond.

But it’s clear from years of data, that efforts to restore trust in government must go well beyond better messaging. Since the 1960’s, the American National Election Studies has asked voters the question, “Would you say the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?” Majorities of Americans throughout the 1960’s believed government was run for the benefit of all people, and subsequently trusted it to do what is right in the classic measure of trust in government.

At no point since 1970, with the exception of a brief time after 9/11, has the ANES reported a majority of voters saying the government was run for the benefit of all people. These beliefs cut across partisan and ideological lines suggesting that Americans have serious doubts not only with the performance or direction of government but more importantly with its basic orientation as a guarantor of the public good.

Trust in government is a huge and complicated issue to understand and is more of a system design challenge rather than a public communications one. How do we as progressives ensure that policymaking and legislation are developed openly with adequate democratic input?  How do we resolve deep ideological and partisan disputes to produce policies that invest in people and our economy? How should we restructure government and elections to drastically reduce the influence of outside money and corporate interests in setting priorities and making policy decisions? And most importantly, how do we get tangible outcomes for people that deliver on their expectations and needs in terms of security, health and education, and economic opportunity?

What progressives and Democrats need to do more than anything is back-up their populist narratives about reform with legitimate structural changes to the corrupt and undemocratic processes of government and sustained efforts to pursue economic policies that will benefit a wide cross-section of working class families and voters.

Ruy Teixeira is a Senior Fellow at both the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. He is also a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and the author or co-author of six books.

John Halpin is a Senior Fellow at American Progress. He is the co-director and creator of the Progressive Studies Program at CAP.