American Trust Inc., or Why we are losing the battle for our democracy

 A Gallup News Poll released Monday is telling. Americans trust their bankers more than their elected officials. According to the poll, 64 percent of Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of Congress as low/very low. This is the lowest rating since the poll was first started in 1976 to rate the public’s perception of the trustworthiness of various professions. Congressional representatives (and presumably senators) are now tied with lobbyists, who are consistently ranked at the bottom along with the ubiquitously sleazy profile of used car salesmen and telemarketers. (Won’t somebody give good ‘ol Gil a break?) In other words, well over half of Americans believe their politicians are liars.

This dim view of American democracy is consistent with the public’s low disapproval rating of the job Congress is doing, or not doing as it were. An overwhelming 82 percent of the electorate is dissatisfied with its performance, whereas 10 years ago an average of 60 percent of those surveyed approved of the job Congress was doing. Times have changed. Or have they?

Two troubling facts stand out when placed alongside these statistics.

1. The incumbency rate in Congress has been above 80 percent since 1964. That means less than 20 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives turns over from year to year. In the Senate the numbers vary slightly more but not by much. Since 1964 the incumbency rate in the U.S. Senate has never dropped below 50 percent, and since 1982 it has remained steady at 70-80 percent. What does this mean? Despite skepticism of both the profession and institution, Americans continue to send the same people back to Washington over and over again. In short, they reward the apparently poor performance of representatives and senators by reelecting them. (This fact can be related to the alarming salaries and bonuses that corporate executives are giving themselves despite their poor performance. Got Enron-fever, anyone?)

2. In addition, Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of various business professionals higher than Congress. Only 22 percent of responders ranked real estate agents as low/very low, 26 percent for bankers, 32 percent for executives, 37 percent for lawyers, and 40 percent for stockbrokers. This means that on average Americans trust big business more than democracy despite the fact that the former is paying off the latter to do its dirty work, and despite the fact that the public is supposed to exercise control over the latter with the power of voting.

What is troubling about these statistics is that Americans are clearly losing (have lost) control of their democracy, and the numbers explain exactly why this is happening. They basically trust the corporate world (slightly) more than their politicians. Yet it is corporate America that is getting its way in Washington and having its way with America—by flooding the nation’s capital with billions of dollars in election money, corporate sponsorship of policy think tanks, and downright graft. Even though the electorate is apparently aware that the honesty and ethical standards of politicians have been compromised, they are alarmingly less aware that the source of that corruption can be traced to corporate America.

For all the vaunted talk of the Tea Party’s renewal of responsible government it is the anger and frustration reflected in the Occupy movement that best reflects the political reality. The exclusive blame for America’s problems lies neither with politicians and big government, nor corporations and their greedy executives. There is plenty of blame to spread around there, and OWS has taken an important first step in exposing this evil collusion between elected officials and big business. When it comes down to it, the electorate shares much of the blame for sending the same people back to Congress year after year, effectively preserving a perverse incentive structure for rewarding incompetence and corruption. Maybe it’s time to run for Congress?