Political efficacy is defined as “the citizens' faith and trust in government and their belief that they can understand and influence political affairs.” Essentially, do we think we can influence politics, or do we leave all these responsibilities to our leaders? Many indicators seem to point to a decline in political efficacy in our society.
How many times have you heard something along the lines of “I just can’t look at the news anymore, it makes me depressed,” or “there’s no point in paying attention to politics anymore”? And it’s easy to see why we wouldn’t pay attention, because you have to dig pretty deep into your news feed to find a story that’s not about whatever dumb thing Trump tweeted yesterday.
I’m definitely guilty of this, and I’m not alone.
I think it’s because our country as a whole has lost the sense that our engagement in politics makes any difference. Of course there are people who are still engaged, and they should be applauded. However, the vast majority of us have given into the feeling that since we can’t do anything to change how things are going, we shouldn’t do anything at all.
And it’s not all because of Trump, either. A poll released by The Atlantic in 2014, pre-Trump, revealed that while many Americans - about 65% - occasionally engage in one or two offline political activities, only 1% have sustained, consistent engagement. Most of us are simply “slacktivists” online, and often not even that.
The poll, however, discovered that 72% of Americans believe that “major social changes in this country have come from average Americans pushing government to change, rather than government taking the lead.” Furthermore, Pew research center has found that 55% of Americans have very little or no trust in the Executive Branch of our government, and 64% have little or no trust in our legislators (the judicial branch does markedly better) as of September 2017.
One would think that the attitudes that our government can’t be trusted and that ordinary citizens are the ones who have the power to make real changes would lead to more civic and political engagement. However, I think that for a long time our political system has seemed like a distant process, and recently this process has descended into a level of insanity.
It’s easy to feel like we’re just watching a bad reality show, with occasional cliffhangers where we have to wait until the next week to find out if we’re going to nuclear war. And of course there’s the season-long arc of the Russia investigation. Is there really anything we can do other than watch? I keep getting Twitter ads about a petition to impeach the president, but there’s truly nothing that a petition, or really anything that ordinary citizens are capable of short of armed revolt, that can actually force a president out of office. And there’s often not a lot we can do about other issues, especially concerning foreign affairs and world issues like climate change.
However, there are some signs that many have become more politically active. After all, ordinary citizens played a huge role in domestic issues, such as halting the repeal of Obamacare and the downfall of the Muslim ban. But how many people have been a part of this resurgence of political action? Most likely, it's not that much more than the 1% in 2014.
It’s still too early to tell, statistically and otherwise, how the election has affected political efficacy as a whole. There’s no doubt, however, that this is a turning point. We have the choice to either take control of our political system or continue to watch it devolve into a national joke, with horrifying international consequences.