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Trust and politics

August is typically a month that democracies take a breath. Lawmakers head home to see families and engage voters. Presidents gear up for spending battles for a new fiscal year.

Sometimes, as in the tea party summer of 2009, politicians get an earful that they did not expect. The shouts in town hall meetings that summer targeted President Obama’s health care reforms but, over time, they settled into a deep resentment of politics as usual.

This summer, it seems, the shouting has never stopped. And that is significant. Whether the topic is civil war statues or health care, much of the upheaval reflects a distrust of the political system’s capacity or will to act fairly.

It’s that distrust, more than any policy agenda, that is driving politics. And it has been expressed worldwide. 

“Brexit” bespoke a distrust in Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Britain is still dealing with the fallout from that vote. 

In France, meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron campaigned on a pledge to reform ethics in public life. 

France has a long history of corruption scandals, no-show jobs with kickbacks to a political party, embezzling public funds, and nepotism. Former President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppe were both convicted of misuse of public funds after they left office. 

Yet even after Mr. Macron succeeded in winning a ban on political nepotism and tighter laws to ensure that lawmakers and officials pay taxes on all their income, his popularity rating has still dropped to 36 percent. 

In Washington, President Trump has moved in the opposite direction. Though he vowed to “drain the swamp,” he has promised to roll back corruption legislation, such as the Corrupt Foreign Practices Act and elements of Dodd-Frank Act. 

“President Trump’s statements are not helpful at all,” says Peter Eigen, founder of Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that combats corruption. “We have to have an international movement on corruption that is very active.”

Mr. Trump’s approval rating has also fallen to about 38 percent, according to polls. 

So what’s happening? What politicians do does matter, especially when they appear to use public office for private gain. Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton have blurred lines on conflict of interest and nepotism on one hand and questionable fundraising on the other.

But there’s a deeper problem, too. More generally, politicians just need to be honest with themselves. 

In the United States, for example, the deeper distrust is not based on actual corruption. It’s not something any legislation can fix. It goes to the nature of politics today. Citizens today want to feel heard and understood, and with the web and cable news they have more tools at their disposal than ever to check in on their politicians. And what they see are politicians that put their own political interests first.

That’s what many political scientists see, too. 

The rich and well-connected most often get what they want, notes Stephen Medvic, a professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College, in an opinion article for The Washington Post. “There is evidence that economic elites and business organizations have a greater impact on policy outcomes than do groups representing average citizens,” he writes.

That leaves a country feeling disenfranchised. The earliest American patriots demanded representation in government in return for their taxes. Tellingly, the upheaval of today on all sides is largely making the same demand.

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