In a time of political polarization, one thing still unites left, right and center: the disdain people have for Washington, their elected leaders and the political system.
Everywhere people look, there are reasons to feel shut out, manipulated or deprived of the whole truth. Big money permeates political campaigns. Political rhetoric is frequently a vehicle for half-truths or pure spin. Members of Congress too often posture rather than legislate.
The impact is all too predictable. Three in four Americans are dissatisfied with the way the political system works, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. More than eight in 10 say they trust the government to do the right thing only some of the time, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
The Pew Research Center recently found that 55 percent of Americans think the current Congress has accomplished less than recent Congresses — a record high. A survey taken at the end of last year by the National Opinion Research Center and the Associated Press found that six in 10 respondents felt generally pessimistic about how their political leaders are chosen.
Gallup reported last week that only a fifth say members of Congress deserve to be reelected, which if it holds through November would be lowest percentage in a midterm year since Gallup started asking the question in 1992.
Election Lab: See our current forecast for every congressional race in 2014
In campaigns, wealthy people with political agendas now speak loudly. The conservative Koch brothers, who will contribute perhaps several hundred million dollars this cycle to try to influence the outcome of elections, have become symbols of the new era. They may be the most prominent practitioners of an accelerating trend, but billionaires large and small, conservative and liberal, all want in on the action.
The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and other legal decisions triggered the explosion in super PAC spending, as well as the darker expenditures by entities that collect individual contributions in the millions of dollars but aren’t required to reveal their donors’ names.
There are serious legal and philosophical arguments about the role of money in politics, as well as real debate about the actual influence all this spending has on election results. But perceptions matter, and many Americans see favoritism and possible corruption lurking behind the dollar signs.
Some politicians say they are outraged by all this money, but they can be selective about their targets. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has railed repeatedly against Charles and David Koch on the Senate floor and tried to turn them into the bogeymen of politics. Two months ago, Reid explained his animus toward the brothers, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd, “They are in it to make money.”
That is his right to say. But when it comes to the activities of his fellow Nevadan Sheldon Adelson, Reid has a different view. Adelson, a Las Vegas casino magnate, put about $100 million into the 2012 presidential campaign on behalf of Republican candidates. “I know Sheldon Adelson,” Reid told Todd. “He’s not in this to make money.”