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The unpopular political class

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds that “voters are disenchanted with the political establishment in Washington”. Positive feelings for both major parties are at new all-time lows: the Democrats are at 33 percent, and the Republicans at 24 percent. There's also greater pessimism about the economy and the course of the Afghanistan war.

Moreover, the WSJ/NBC poll found that six in ten people rated congress’ performance (as a whole) as below average or one of the worst. Another poll, by Gallup, confirmed the low opinion of congress. Only 19 percent approve of the overall job congress is doing according to Gallup. Over the course of 2010 so far, the average approval rating is 20 percent, which is down from last year’s 30 percent and below the average of 36 percent since 1974.

Some Republicans dismissed the WSJ/NBC results. Republican pollster Bill McInturff says “Even with Republicans having low numbers, they are the opposition party and are going to benefit from people saying, ‘We’re ticked off and we want a change.” A Democratic pollster, Peter Hart, calls it the “Jet Blue election”, after the flight attendant: “Everyone’s hurling invective and they’re all taking the emergency exit.” 

Maybe they will. But you’ve got to wonder: at a time of a stubborn recession with high unemployment, and when the White House can at best be described as ineffective, the Republicans should be cleaning up. And yet it is remarkable that the Republicans’ approval rating has declined, to an all-time low, and remains lower than the Democrats’ rating.

This degree of disillusionment with both parties is arguably unprecedented. It increases the likelihood of unpredictable outcomes in electoral politics, such as the upcoming midterm elections in November. Despite what the pollsters and pundits say, we shouldn’t just assume that voters will adopt a “kick the bums out” mentality and vote out the incumbent party (the Democrats), given the fact that the alternative (the Republicans) is just as, if not more, unpopular. And even if they do switch to the Republicans, it is clear it won’t  mean that they are doing so with enthusiasm.

The problem is not just that both parties have their particular shortcomings; it is that Americans are skeptical if not hostile to the political class as a whole. This should raise questions about our politics generally, and move us away from the vapid horse-race stories about which party is likely to get voted in next time.

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