By Christopher Cooper and Gibbs Knotts
Confidence in politics, politicians and government is low. President Obama’s approval rating hovers around 50 percent as he deals with two wars and what may turn out to be the worst environmental disaster in the nation’s history. Further down Pennsylvania Avenue, only 20 percent of Americans approve of the U.S. Congress, the country’s major legislative body and, for many, the very symbol of democratic government.
Although there is ample evidence about what the nation as a whole thinks of government, there is much less information about what people here in Jackson County think about the political system. Do residents of Jackson County view the federal government with the same level of disapproval? Does the lack of confidence at the national level translate to opinions of government here in Jackson County?
Fortunately, the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll conducted last month provides some important clues about the vitally important relationship between citizens and government.
As reported last week in The Smoky Mountain News, Jackson County registered voters approve of the U.S. Congress at rates similar to, but slightly higher than, residents across the United States (29 percent favorable, 62 percent unfavorable and 9 percent not sure). A closer look at the results shows that self-identified conservatives, a group that makes up 40 percent of registered voters, displayed less support for the federal government than moderates and liberals.
Conservatives advocate smaller government, particularly when it comes to spending on public welfare, so it makes sense that they disapprove of the federal government with a Democratic President and Democratic majorities in Congress. In addition to conservatives disapproving of the federal government at high rates here in Jackson County, college-educated respondents approved of the federal government more than respondents with lower levels of education.
For what is probably the first time in Jackson County history, there also is evidence about support for local government. This is a compelling time to investigate approval of local government given recent events in the county. In the last few years, commissioners passed countywide land use planning, mounted a legal battle against Duke Power over the removal of the Dillsboro Dam, and approved a controversial raise package for county employees. No matter your stance on these issues, most of us can agree that these events were controversial.
The WCU PPI/SMN survey found that a third of registered voters had a favorable opinion of Jackson County government. The question was designed to gauge an overall opinion of county government, but it is important to consider what respondents may have been considering when asked to approve or disapprove of Jackson County government. They could have been thinking about the county commissioners, the county manager’s office or some other agency in county government. As County Commissioner McMahan indicated in last week’s Smoky Mountain News, ideally the poll would have asked follow-up questions about why people felt the way they did. Unfortunately, given the time limitations of the survey and the many important issues to be covered, follow-up questions will have to wait for a future poll.
Looking behind the numbers, older respondents supported county government at higher rates than younger respondents. In addition, conservatives have a more negative view of Jackson County government than moderates or liberals, more highly educated respondents had higher levels of support than registered voters with less formal education, and residents of Cashiers expressed very low support for the county government.
In addition to a question about approval of county government, the WCU PPI/SMN survey also asked respondents’ opinions of the Jackson County school system. Attitudes toward the school system were generally positive (49 percent favorable, 27 percent unfavorable, and 24 percent not sure) and rated considerably higher than opinions of both the federal government and Jackson County government. Looking more closely at the numbers indicates higher support from older respondents — even though these individuals are less likely to have school age children. In addition, support for the Jackson County school system was highest among residents with a Sylva address, indicating higher levels of support for schools in this area.
Politicians and readers can debate whether these numbers are higher or lower than expected. There are no other polls of Jackson County with which to compare these baseline results, so it is impossible to know for certain whether these numbers are increasing or decreasing in our county. Nonetheless, most observers would probably agree that more approval of government is a good thing, and these numbers indicate that it could be higher.
So, how does a government increase citizens’ confidence? Some issues are certainly out of a politician’s control. Factors such as the economy and increasing divisions between Democrats and Republicans in the electorate may be next to impossible for any politician — especially a local one — to solve. Given these constraints, the best way to address the lack of confidence in the political system is to enhance the dialogue between elected officials and the electorate.
Local politicians should create more opportunities for citizens to learn about county government and for citizens to communicate with their elected officials in a safe and partisan neutral environment. Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie’s recent suggestion to televise commission meetings is an excellent start. Of course, Jackson County citizens must take advantage of these opportunities for them to be successful. If politicians reach out to the people, the people must reach back. If citizens and politicians meet each other halfway, the result will benefit Jackson County, no matter the specific outcome.
Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts are associate professors of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, where Knotts also serves as department head and Cooper directs the Public Policy Institute.