As faith flags in US government, many voters want to upend the system
By Reid J. Epstein
A majority of American voters across nearly all demographics and ideologies believe their system of government does not work, with 58% of those interviewed for a New York Times/Siena College poll saying that the world’s oldest independent constitutional democracy needs major reforms or a complete overhaul.
The discontent among Republicans is driven by their widespread, unfounded doubts about the legitimacy of the nation’s elections. For Democrats, it is the realization that even though they control the White House and Congress, it is Republicans, joined with their allies in gerrymandered state legislatures and the Supreme Court, who are achieving long-sought political goals.
For Republicans, the distrust is a natural outgrowth of former President Donald Trump’s domination of the party and, to a large degree, American politics. After seven years in which he relentlessly attacked the country’s institutions, a broad majority of Republicans share his views on the 2020 election and its aftermath: Sixty-one percent said he was the legitimate winner, and 72% described the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol as a protest that got out of hand.
The survey results come as the House committee investigating Jan. 6 revealed new evidence this week that Trump and his aides had a hand in directing the mob to the Capitol to try to maintain his hold on the executive branch.
Among all voters, 49% said the Capitol riot was an attempt to overthrow the government. Fifty-five percent said Trump’s actions after the 2020 election had threatened American democracy. As with so many other issues, voters saw the riot through the same partisan lens as other issues.
Seventy-six percent of Republican voters said Trump had simply been exercising his right to contest his loss to Joe Biden. Asked if Trump had committed crimes while contesting the election, 89% of Democrats and 49% of independent voters said yes, while 80% of Republicans said he had not.
“If I’d have been Trump, I’d have been very pissed off about the whole situation,” said Charles Parrish, 71, a retired firefighter from Evans, Georgia.
Among Democrats, 84% said the Capitol attack was an attempt to overthrow the government and 92% said Trump threatened American democracy.
Democrats’ pessimism about the future stems from their party’s inability to protect abortion rights, pass sweeping gun control measures and pursue other liberal priorities in the face of Republican opposition. Self-described liberals were more likely than other Democrats to have lost trust in government and more likely to say voting did not make a difference.
Americans’ bipartisan cynicism about government signals a striking philosophical shift: For generations, Democrats campaigned on the idea that government was a force for good, while Republicans sought to limit it. Now, the polling shows, the number of Americans in both parties who believe their government is capable of responding to voters’ concerns has shrunk.
In one indicator of how Americans’ perception of the government has transformed, the poll found that Fox News viewers were more optimistic than any other demographic about the country’s ability to get on the right track over the next decade: Seventy-two percent were hopeful for such a scenario.
Ray Townley, 58, a retiree from Ozark, Arkansas, and a regular Fox News viewer, said he was very optimistic about the country’s future because he anticipated major changes in Washington.
“They’re going to vote the Democrats out,” he said.
More than half of all voters surveyed, 53%, said the American political system was too divided to solve the nation’s problems, an increase from 40% in a Times/Siena poll from October 2020. The sentiment is now most acute among Black voters and the youngest voters.
The lack of faith is starkest among the young, who have little to no memory of a time when American politics didn’t function as a zero-sum affair. Nearly half — 48% — of those surveyed between the ages of 18 and 29 said voting did not make a difference in how their government operates.
Mitch Toher, a 22-year-old independent from Austin, Texas, said there was little reason to vote because the country would not function as long as its government operated under the two-party system.
Toher, who works in information technology, said he was not optimistic that the American political system or its elected officials were responsive enough to address the needs of young voters. Voting for either Democrats or Republicans, he said, would do little to change things in his life for the better.
“The largest divide is not necessarily left versus right, but those that are generationally old versus young,” he said. “I don’t think those types of changes are coming anytime soon, or at least forthcoming in my point in lifetime.”
Rosantina Goforth, 55, of Wagoner, Oklahoma, said officials at every level of government needed to be removed and replaced with people “who believe in the United States.”
Goforth, who is retired from the Army and said she got her news from Christian news programs, is one of the Republicans who falsely believe Trump won the 2020 election. Voting, she said, has little bearing on how the government operates.
“Our say really doesn’t matter,” she said. “I know Trump won that election. It’s a given. He won that election. But somehow or another, you know, people got paid and votes were mismanaged.”
Some voters expressed frustration with a political system they saw as ill equipped to address problems from across the ideological spectrum. Felix Gibbs, 66, a retired forklift operator from Niagara Falls, New York, said the government was not prepared to solve the two issues he saw as most pressing: illegal immigration and a lack of universal health coverage.
“I’m sure there are other issues I can bring up that will show that our political system is not working,” said Gibbs, who said he voted for Trump in 2020 and would do so again.
The Supreme Court, which has long guarded its reputation as above politics, is widely viewed as a political body, the poll found. Nearly two-thirds of those polled said the justices’ rulings were based on their political views, not on the Constitution, a belief shared by 88% of Democrats and 39% of Republicans.
Voters who backed Biden in 2020 said they were dispirited by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, which includes three justices appointed by Trump.
Elizabeth Thiel, 40, an administrative assistant from Lilburn, Georgia, who was among the millions of suburban women who helped propel Biden to victory in 2020, said the country needed to end lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices. Thiel said the court’s recent decisions on gun control and abortion rights had undermined the popular will of the country.
“We see it in the way that they vote for and against things, and especially with the Roe versus Wade thing a few weeks ago,” she said. “It’s just not right. I mean, it’s just not right.”
Interviews with voters who were polled revealed chasms in American society that stretched far beyond policy debates in Washington and extended to cultural issues that often dominate news coverage.
Conservatives expressed opposition to proposed gun control measures and gains in rights for transgender people, while liberals said they could not believe that the country’s civil rights advances had moved so slowly and that the Supreme Court had ended the federal right to an abortion.
Rachel Bernhardt, 62, a legal assistant from Silver Spring, Maryland, said her family had been involved in progressive politics since her grandfather was an economist in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Her parents participated in civil rights demonstrations in Washington, she recalled.
Now, she said, she has become disillusioned with the difficulty of persuading the U.S. government to respond to what people want.
Trump’s election, Bernhardt said, revealed to her the scope of American racism and the extent to which Republican elected officials would cater to it.
“You don’t have to necessarily be a liberal Democrat to be a good person,” she said. “But what I had no idea until I was much older was how many people still believe in the Confederacy or, you know, just — if I saw a Confederate flag, I’d just assume that that person was some kind of mentally ill psycho.”
The diminution of trust in the American political system has come during a moment of vast retrenchment of local news outlets. A quarter of all newspapers — more than 2,500 — have closed since 2005, cable news viewership has sharply fallen and more Americans are getting their news from social media. The poll found that 34% of voters were very or somewhat confident that major newspapers and television networks reported accurately and fairly about news and politics.
Seven percent of those polled said they got most of their news from a major national newspaper. One percent said they turned to a local newspaper. Among Republicans, 29% said Fox News was their primary news source.
The level of confidence in the mainstream media is lowest among voters who find their news through social media.
Jacqueline Beck-Manheimer, 58, is an independent who has voted for third-party candidates in recent presidential contests. She works at an employment services company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and said her news diet consisted of YouTube shows that presented stories they claim the mainstream media is ignoring, including the channel of Russell Brand, an actor who has become a prominent purveyor of coronavirus conspiracy theories.
Beck-Manheimer said she was upset about the Supreme Court’s rollback of abortion rights, members of Congress who took corporate campaign contributions, the increased size of the defense budget and profits that pharmaceutical companies made in selling coronavirus vaccines to the federal government.
The government’s problems would be easier to solve, she said, if the news media weren’t invested in sowing division among Americans.
“It’s the media who stokes the culture war,” she said. “It’s all a provocation to distract us from what what’s really going on, and what’s really going on is nothing but big businesses and their money.”