Throughout his 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden ran on bridging America’s political divide and reigniting a waning bipartisan spirit in Washington, D.C. Two and a half years after his inauguration, it’s safe to say that he failed in his vision; he was unable to curb the country’s ever-growing polarization or restore faith in government.
While there have been periods of high government distrust in the past, this current moment has America at a tipping point. Since the start of President George W. Bush’s first term in 2001, the proportion of Americans who trust the government has declined from 54% to just 20%. Whereas past drops have been temporary and frequently tied to distinct political scandals such as Watergate, the longstanding decline we face has stemmed from numerous issues including the Iraq War, the Great Recession, the COVID-19 response, the Jan. 6 insurrection and repeated allegations of corruption among top lawmakers.
These crises have spurred a dramatic rise in populist rhetoric on both the left and right, with former President Donald Trump dominating the Republican presidential primaries and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., riding a populist wave to a near-win in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Across the aisle, the fight against “elites” has galvanized voters and pushed elected officials to embrace partisanship. Members of Congress take pride in blocking critical votes on national debt and defense spending, all while resolving to impeach presidential candidates even before they take office. Though bipartisan senators like Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would have been celebrated in previous generations, they are now maligned by their own constituents, fighting a losing battle against an increasingly partisan electorate.
While it’s easy to dismiss modern political tensions as an unavoidable consequence of social media, disinformation and job loss due to automation, ignoring these tensions risks pushing America toward more authoritarian leadership. With voters desperate for anyone capable of political action, regardless of the systems they exploit to achieve it, government offices are becoming steadily more powerful, allowing bad actors to more easily exploit constituents. If we continue to allow interparty relations to devolve, we risk causing irreversible harm to America’s democratic institutions.
In order to reverse the bitter partisan divide caused by government distrust and revive the possibility of bipartisanship, decisive action must immediately be taken. In order to restore faith in elected officials, voters should push for legislation that enacts term limits, reigns in special interests and fights corruption. Further, any legislation proposed should address concerns voiced by both parties in an effort to move beyond political posturing and spur a new era of accountability in D.C.
Though there have been anti-corruption measures proposed by lawmakers across the political spectrum, they have often been presented as efforts to reign in the opposing party’s power. On the right, repeated inquiries have been made into Biden’s family and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s, D-Calif., impressive stock trades, while the left has accused Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Trump’s children of corruption. While the boogeymen may differ, much of the anger on both sides stems from common roots.
While lack of faith in government is hardly a new phenomenon, much of the intensity we currently experience emerged after the 2008 recession during the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party protests. Though their solutions vastly differed, both movements shared a bipartisan backlash against the Wall Street elite, special interest groups and Congressmen, all of whom went unpunished for their roles in causing the recession. The endpoints of the movements have differed, with Trump inheriting the Tea Party voters on the right and Sanders creating a populist wave on the left, but their core values of anti-corruption never diverged.
Over the course of a decade, the anger on both sides has cascaded, forming formidable populist coalitions built on animosity toward “the swamp” and “the billionaire class,” but little progress has been made toward enacting real solutions. If voters hope to actually bring real accountability to D.C., it’s time to set aside the anger on both sides and harness our frustration to finally bring about compromise on anti-corruption reform.
In a recent speech, U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., laid out a sweeping agenda for institutional political change. He espoused a ban on contributions from Political Action Committees, a ban on stock trading for congressmen, a term limit of 18 years for the Supreme Court, a term limit of 12 years for Members of Congress and a new code of ethics for federal judges. Though some of his proposals, like an outright ban on PAC contributions, would be politically challenging to enact, and others, like term limits, would be logistically difficult due to the likely need for constitutional amendments, Khanna’s proposals present a strong framework to build off of.
Limits on political contributions and active stock trading could be enforced immediately and have great effects, while an overhaul of ethics codes would clarify many gray areas that allow for conflicts of interest. By lowering total contributions from corporations and PACs, politicians would be less beholden to interest groups like the National Rifle Association and would have far greater incentives to promote policies that support their constituents, who would make up a greater share of their donor base if institutional contributions were lowered.
Although Ro Khanna hails from the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, many of his ideas echo the sentiments of MAGA Republicans who are desperate for pushback against both parties’ perceived corruption. Through the grassroots movements they have formed, voters have an opportunity to drive real compromise between the populist wings of the left and right and dramatically reshape the landscape of American politics. Such reform would allow the country to hit the reset button on political animosity and regain faith in elected officials. While ideological disagreements will rightfully continue to cause conflict, the basic faith that elected officials are working for the American people rather than their own financial interests can finally begin to recover. Rather than continuously stoking outrage, it’s time to constructively work toward solutions that can bring back a less hostile Washington.
Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.