Democracy cannot function without trust in government: people must know that their elected officials are working for the collective good, not for private gain nor for the limited benefit of (let us say) wealthy donors. This is the fundamental compact of democracy: Governments, Jefferson wrote, “are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The citizens of this nation live for this ideal and many have died for it; but too many people now believe themselves powerless in the face of a government that does not operate in their interest. Simply put, they do not trust their elected representatives.
And why should they? These same (“Trust me! I alone can fix it!”) elected officials, and their appointees, have failed the most fundamental tests. In a crisis — a worldwide pandemic, a health crisis that has claimed over 200,000 American lives and nearly a million around the globe — they have failed in every imaginable way: from literally throwing out the NSC manual on dealing with a pandemic; to pitting states against each other to acquire protective gear; to denying the seriousness of the problem; to pretending that it has already passed, even as the daily number of new cases outstrips the rate of March and April.
“We have serious problems in this country and we need serious people to solve them,” says President Andrew Shepherd in the 1995 movie, “The American President.” We did, we do. And we do need serious people to solve them: people dedicated to an ideal, people who will work for the greater good. These are not the people currently in the White House or the Senate majority. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a gang less serious about solving your problems — they would much rather line their own pockets or amass power simply for its own sake. It’s easier than working, and apparently more rewarding.
In the last six months we have seen our government yawn at those 200,000 unnecessary deaths; release tear gas on citizens exercising their First Amendment rights; vow to revoke the health insurance of 21 million Americans during a pandemic; and call into question the results of a future election. The chief executive has called soldiers fallen in battle “losers” while he hides from protesters in a bunker.
Serious people to solve our problems? Hardly. The people nominally in charge are the serious problems we face. While the House of Representatives continues to do its work, as best it can, the United States Senate — the self-styled “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” — perfects its transformation from functioning legislature to legislative graveyard, where bills supported by a majority of voters go to die. The Senate majority leader can’t be bothered, in the face of a pandemic that is on track to kill over a quarter million before Election Day, to bring a relief bill passed by the House in May to the floor for debate and a vote; but he will rush through a Supreme Court nomination — a nomination which has yet to be announced. Just what are the priorities here? Doing the People’s business has taken a back seat to entrenching a jurisprudence rejected by a solid majority of those same People.
No wonder Americans have lost faith and do not trust their government. They believe their government does not operate in their interests and feel powerless, unable to issue any corrective. What power, after all, does a single vote have? They are not wrong, but neither are they right: we have seen how just a few votes in the right places can swing an election. (That this has much to do with the Electoral College, itself a vestige of America’s original sin, is a topic for another day. For now the point is simply: every vote matters as we know from the painful experiences of 2000 and 2016, not to mention 1888, 1876, and 1824.) That feeling of helplessness is encouraged by established power structures and the incumbents who support and benefit from them: a poll tax is not the only voter-suppression tool, nor is it necessarily the most effective.
In the long term, big structural reforms will be needed; in the short term, the best corrective is the simplest: Vote.