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Originally published Friday, May 28, 2010 at 2:57 PM

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Politicians confront a cynical nation

The Seattle Times editorial board argues that the cynicism of the American people toward their political leaders is learned behavior — and that it is the politicians' task to convince them to unlearn it.

REPUBLICANS will probably win some seats in local and federal elections this fall. It is not because the people like the Republican Party. National pollster Scott Rasmussen said, "Voters don't like either party." They have been voting against the ruling party since 2006.

The discontent is not mainly about President Barack Obama, though it includes him. It is about the political class — its arrogance, its insularity and its assumption of the right to run things. "I can't begin to explain to you the depth of cynicism," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen, who runs the polling company Rasmussen Reports, spoke Wednesday in Seattle to the annual dinner of the Washington Research Council. The audience was pro-business, and was no doubt glad to hear that when asked about "free enterprise," nearly 90 percent of Americans with an opinion are favorable.

When asked about "capitalism," however, only 60 percent of Americans are favorable. When asked about "business CEOs," few are favorable.

The reason? "Crony capitalism," he said.

The signature event, he said, was the Bush administration's bank and insurance-company bailout, which was followed by the Obama administration's bailout of General Motors and Chrysler.

Washington insiders are proud of those bailouts, he said. But the people are not.

Americans now distinguish between the companies that took the bailout money and those that did not. "The most popular car company in America is Ford Motor," he said. "It's the only one that didn't take the bailout."

The cynicism was much of the reason why the people rejected the health-care bill. Initially, they were for a bill they thought would lower costs. When they heard it would cost a trillion dollars extra, their support fell.

But their rejection of health reform was also about the bailouts and the distrust. Most of them did not understand the bill itself. They just were not of a mind to give the political class another thing it wanted.

When the Obama administration said the bill would reduce the deficit, the people did not believe it.

"People don't trust government projections," Rasmussen said. "Eighty-one percent believe that whatever the government says, it will cost more."

Who is to say the people are wrong? If they believe this, they learned to believe it. The great task of politics is to convince them — and through deeds, not just talk — to unlearn it.

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