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Dr. Ted McAllister and Benjamin Peterson (MPP '16) on Political Estrangement | The Orange County Register

E Populist Unum?

July 2, 2016 | The Orange County Register | By Ted McAllister and Benjamin Peterson

The majority of Americans feel alienated from the federal government. Political estrangement has become so acute as to present a fundamental challenge to the principle of self-rule, vital to the American republic. To regain a sense of empowerment, Americans need to rebuild civic culture from the ground up. The path to a healthy national politics runs through American burgs, cities and states.

The Harris Alienation Index reached 70 percent in 2014, the highest level since its 1966 debut at 29 percent. There were variations among demographics, but none scored below 64 percent, and 89 percent agreed that people in D.C. are out of touch with the rest of the country. In an Ipsos poll, 58 percent agreed that “I don’t identify with what America has become,” and 53 percent said “I feel like a stranger in my own country.” Some analysts see in these figures “pure unabashed nativism,” but they raise the question of whether the “fundamental principle” of our system that “legitimate government proceeds only by the consent of the governed” is meaningfully operative in American politics. The data cast serious doubt that it is.

Consider Americans’ attitudes toward the institution designed to directly express their voice: Congress. A June 2014 Gallup poll marked a “new low” for confidence in the Legislature at 7 percent, the lowest rating for any public institution since the poll began in 1973. Trust in Congress is especially low in election years with significant turnover: 1994, 2010 and 2014. These elections signaled frustration of the Republican electorate; as electoral victory failed to yield fundamental changes, frustration has deepened into estrangement.

Donald Trump’s campaign against political correctness and incompetent government elites has allowed some of the estranged to express contempt for the system. Meanwhile, support for the Sanders campaign emerged from a different sort of alienation, welling up from a social justice narrative. Advocates of this narrative see our society as fundamentally unfair. They want to expand the reach of the federal government to “address the root causes of economic inequality,” for instance.

The remedy to our dyspeptic politics cannot be a takeover of the federal government but a rollback of federal power. We believe this is the only path toward protecting American liberties, self-rule, and a deep experience of belonging and participation. We envision the American future as a national mosaic of “little platoons” and self-governing communities instead of as a national community absorbing over 300 million individuals into an administrative state.

The 19th-century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville judged that the long experience of “township freedom” was the wellspring of American liberty. Local self-government offered countless tangible experiences of active political participation. In conjunction with the network of federated non-governmental associations dotting the civic landscape that social scientist Theda Skocpol describes, local civic engagement was the beating heart of the American experience of citizenship.

The shriveled state of civic life underlies our alienation. An August 2012 Pew Research Center report showed that less than half of Americans had been involved with a civic group or activity in the past year and only 35 percent had worked with other citizens to solve a problem in their community. Voter turnout for local elections is far lower than for presidential elections.

Yet state and especially local governments have suffered nothing like the decline in trust that the federal government and other public institutions have, consistently retaining a solid majority of citizens’ trust since 1972. Perhaps Americans can build on our strengths to regain a sense of representation and empowerment.

A syndrome of estrangement, including alienation from the federal government, seriously imperils American civic health. No outcome of this election can solve the alienation it reflects or engage with the complex forms of injustice that riddle American communities, real or imagined. For that, we must concentrate on rebuilding our local patchwork of self-governing communities where the people can participate in governance, learning the neglected art of neighborliness.

Ted McAllister holds the Edward L. Gaylord Chair at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Benjamin Peterson is a doctoral student in Texas A&M’s Dept. of Political Science.