Rethinking America

US Voters: Fed Up with Corruption

Trust in the U.S. federal government is at an all time low. Democratic presidential candidates will need to convince voters that they understand their concerns.

Credit: Orhan Cam


  • Every few days, another candidate announces their campaign to become the next president of the US. There are now 23 of them.
  • Trust in the US federal government is at an all time low. Democratic presidential candidates will need to convince voters that they understand their concerns.
  • Conventional wisdom in Washington now is that the race among the Democrats is between those representing the center of their party and those on the “progressive left.”
  • Part of Trump’s popularity in 2016 was due to public concerns about the political elite. Now, Trump can no longer claim to be a Washington “outsider.”

Bizarrely, every few days, another American announces her/his campaign to become the next president of the United States.

There are now 23 of them. Surprisingly, very few of these candidates are highlighting two core long-term trends that are likely to have a major influence on the voters.

First, public trust in government has never been so low. And, second, never before have most U.S. households had such a tiny share of the nation’s total wealth as they do today.

The data underscores a critical concern and reality: The U.S. political system has been rigged by wealthy individuals and special interests. U.S. citizens understand that money has come to have a nasty influence on a U.S. democracy driven by pay-to play schemes.

Three candidates

Corruption features in every speech on the campaign trail given by both Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Both of them bluntly assert that financial, pharmaceutical and defense industry interests have bought excessive political influence to the grave detriment of the living standards of most Americans.

Another candidate, Senator Kamala Harris, also talks about the rigged system. She notes that while voters she meets at townhall events across the country rarely talk about president Trump’s conflicts of interest.

Nor do they talk about the findings of the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, they have corruption in government very much on their minds. It impacts their concerns about healthcare, debt and the real costs of living.

The data

Public trust in government is now lower than at any time since opinion polls on the topic were taken in the late 1950s.

When the Pew Research Center started its National Election Study asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of U.S. citizens trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time.

Now, the level of distrust exceeds that 75% level by a considerable margin.

A new Pew study shows that only 17% of U.S. citizens trust the federal government to do the right thing always or most of the time – the lowest level ever recorded (see chart below).

Then, according to a new report from the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, household wealth in the United States has quadrupled over the 30 years since 1989.

Over the last 30 years, the wealthiest Americans increased their share of the nation’s total wealth from 60% to 70%. Their gain came at the expense of all other Americans.

The most striking development relates to less well-off Americans — in fact fully one-half of all American households — whose combined share of total American wealth declined from 4% back in 1989 to an almost invisible 1% today.

Voter worries

Many Americans have credit card and automobile-related debt, and no savings. Meanwhile, the scale of student debt has never been higher.

The lack of financial assets held by most households makes it very difficult for people to obtain credit, including home mortgages from their banks, which fuels concerns about housing.

The financial strains mean that sudden health emergencies can swiftly push Americans into personal bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Americans are acutely aware of the large sums of cash that the biggest American enterprises legally provide to the political campaigns of their favorite politicians.

For example, while most Americans may find it difficult to get loans from their financial institutions, including real estate brokers, the financial sector is effectively exerting its political influence to reduce government regulation.

A new report shows that the financial industry spent at least $1.9 billion last year on political action – about $957 million on lobbying, and $922 million supporting candidates in last November’s mid-term Congressional elections – a record for such elections.

Among just the top 20 donors in this sector, the largest was the National Associations of Realtors with spending of over $144 million and the 20thplace was held by Wells Fargo banking group with a still formidable total of $10.5 million.

Trump and the voters

Senator Joe Biden is currently the front-runner in the opinion polls among Democratic Party candidates, but his statements suggest not only that he lacks the passion about anti-corruption demonstrated by rivals Sanders, Warren and Harris, but he does not understand that American voters feel cheated by the Washington political establishment.

Biden has been a prominent member of this political elite for more than 40 years.

Part of Trump’s popularity in 2016, like so many non-traditional and non-establishment politicians in Europe, reflected broad public concerns that the political elite has for decades been overly keen to take cash from wealthy interests and ensure that these interests have excellent access when key political decisions are taken.

Now, Trump can no longer claim to be a Washington “outsider,” although he undoubtedly will do his best to suggest that this is still the case.

Listening to voters

Many of the winners in the elections to Congress last November understood that voters were keen to have new leaders willing to learn, for example, about the healthcare cost anxieties of most Americans and unwilling to take campaign funds from special interests and large donors.

Americans attending the rallies of the vast field of presidential candidates may not be talking about the Mueller Report, but their strong views send a clear message that they have had enough with Washington corruption.

The eventual Democratic Party nominee to face Republican Trump needs to be someone who listens to the voters and understands why they are so distrustful of their government.

Conventional wisdom in Washington now is to suggest that the race among the Democrats is between those who represent the center of their party, such as Biden, several state governors and a number of Senators and members of the House of Representatives; and those on the so-called “progressive left,” such as Warren and Sanders.

The fact is that all the candidates argue that the nation needs better healthcare, education, infrastructure, higher minimum wage levels and serious climate change policies.

The differences between the candidates on these issues are not much more than nuances. What divides the candidates, however, is that a few of them are able to convey to voters that they genuinely feel the pain that wealth inequality has wrought and understand that nothing will change unless there is a full-scale assault on corruption in U.S. politics.

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About Frank Vogl

Frank Vogl is co-founder of Transparency International and author of and author of “The Enablers - How the West Supports Kleptocrats and Corruption-Endangering Our Democracy" (Roman and Littlefield)

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