The Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building is seen from the air.

The Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building is seen from the air. jiawangkun/

How Can the U.S. Fix a Broken Government?

A new poll shows Americans think Washington isn’t working well enough. Can the political system solve its own problems?

Americans believe that Washington, D.C., is not doing enough to solve the nation’s problems. The situation is so bad that this failure of government has become the most serious concern for the country, they say. But paradoxically, many Americans also believe the federal government is the best hope to fix its own inability to function. Government is the problem and the solution.

That’s one finding of the latest Allstate/Atlantic Media Heartland Monitor poll, which shows that Americans think the most serious issue facing the country is that “the political system in Washington is not working well enough to produce solutions to the nation’s problems.” The poll also shows that more Americans believe the federal government is “most likely to provide solutions” to that challenge, outpacing state and local governments, big business or national corporations, local businesses, community or non-profit groups, and individuals.

The results of the poll highlight the stakes of the 2016 election. The unexpected rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, self-styled outsiders with promises to bring bold change to Washington, suggests that Americans across the political spectrum are angry with the political status quo. If Americans fear their government isn’t working, but still believe the best hope to reverse that trend hinges on the feds, then it might matter a great deal to voters who becomes their next president. Will Americans prefer Trump, who offers a break with political tradition, or will they elect Hillary Clinton, a politician who styles herself as a successor to President Obama, and in that sense could be seen as a continuation of the past? 

Across partisan lines, voters are strongly convinced of D.C.’s failings. Ninety-six percent of Trump voters identified Washington as a problem, and 88 percent of Clinton voters said the same. Similarly, 95 percent of Republicans said that the political system in Washington is not working well enough, compared to 83 percent of Democrats. But roughly the same percentage of Trump and Clinton voters believe the federal government can help solve the problem. Forty percent of Trump voters and 43 percent of Clinton voters responded that the federal government was most likely to bring about a fix, a difference in results that fell within the margin of error.

The fact that so many voters are fed up with politics as usual might have been expected to give Trump an advantage. But, in fact, Clinton and Trump supporters alike largely appear to agree on the diagnosis of the problem as well as the mechanism for its solution.  

So voters will have to decide which candidate they think can best steer the government that they hope can reform itself. Some Americans will inevitably think Trump is the best choice for a fresh start. Others might fear that he could irrevocably break an already damaged political system. Democratic voters may believe Clinton is a better candidate for reasons unrelated to how they feel about Washington, or they may think her track record and experience in government will have prepared her to deliver the change necessary to fix Washington, despite the criticism she has faced for being too much a part of the political status quo.

None of this means that Americans are optimistic that change will actually come to Washington, or think it is likely that the federal government will fix its own failings. Even if many Americans believe the federal government needs to reform itself, they may be relatively pessimistic that reform will happen given their dissatisfaction with the way Washington currently functions.

Some Americans do seem to think nothing can be done to make Washington work better. When asked which group or institution was most likely to provide a solution to the problem of a weakly functioning Washington, 5 percent said that “no one can fix it” or that none of the provided options could solve the problem. Another 5 percent were unsure of the most likely group or institution that might provide a solution.

Despite their concern with Washington, though, many still believe the federal government is better prepared than state and local governments, the private sector, nonprofits, and individuals to respond to a wide array of challenges facing the nation.

According to the survey, a majority or a plurality of Americans believe the federal government is most likely to provide solutions to, or otherwise deliver on, the threat of terrorism hitting American targets, excessive influence exerted by Wall Street and the big banks on the economy and political decision-making, the offshoring of jobs by American companies, the ability to pay for college without incurring excessive debt, and the concern that the average family income is lower today than in 2000.

All that suggests that even as Americans fret that the federal government is broken, they may still be looking to national politics for solutions to many of the challenges of contemporary life. Voters will have to weigh these considerations carefully when they head to the ballot box in November to elect the next commander-in-chief. Of course, if Americans look for solutions from the same institution they feel has failed them, they may ultimately be disappointed, no matter who wins the election.

The latest Allstate/Atlantic Media Heartland Monitor Poll is the 26th in a series examining how Americans are experiencing the changing economy. This poll examines the public’s attitudes toward fundamental trends reshaping American culture and the economy and their views about which institutions are best positioned to respond to them. It surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phones from June 19 to June 24, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The survey was supervised by Ed Reilly and Megan McNally of FTI Consulting’s strategic communications practice.

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