Whitney Smith’s phone buzzed with a text from her mother, alerting her to the latest can-you-believe-it mess in Washington: “Far right ousted the House speaker. Total chaos now.”
Ms. Smith, 35, a bookkeeper and registered independent in suburban Phoenix, wanted no part of it. She tries to stay engaged in civic life by voting, volunteering in local campaigns and going to city meetings. But over the past week, the pandemonium of a narrowly averted government shutdown and leadership coup in the Republican-controlled House confirmed many Americans’ most cynical feelings about the federal government.
“It was just like, Oh God, what now?” she said.
Griping about politics is a time-honored American pastime but lately, the country’s political mood has plunged to some of the worst levels on record.
After weathering the tumult of the Trump presidency, a pandemic, the Capitol insurrection, inflation, multiple presidential impeachments and far-right Republicans’ pervasive lies about fraud in the 2020 election, voters say they feel tired and angry.
In dozens of recent interviews across the country, voters young and old expressed a broad pessimism about the next presidential election that transcends party lines, and a teetering faith in political institutions.
The White House and Congress have pumped out billions of dollars to fix and improve the nation’s roads, ports, pipelines and internet. They have approved hundreds of billions to combat climate change and lower the cost of prescription drugs. President Biden has canceled billions more in student debt. Yet those accomplishments have not fully registered with voters.
A small group of hard-right Republicans drove the country to the brink of a government shutdown, then plunged Congress into chaos when they instigated the vote that, with Democratic support, removed Mr. McCarthy. Democrats are betting that voters will blame Republicans for the trouble. Many voters interviewed this week said they viewed the whole episode as evidence of broad dysfunction in Washington, and blamed political leaders for being consumed by workplace drama at the expense of the people they are meant to serve.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy leaving the House floor after being ousted as Speaker of the House.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times
“They seem so disconnected from us,” said Kevin Bass, 57, a bank executive who lives in New Home, a rural West Texas town. He serves on the local school board and has two children in public school, and another in college. He describes himself as conservative who voted for former President Donald J. Trump both times. “I don’t really look at either party as benefiting our country,” he said.
Voters said that Washington infighting and the Republicans’ flirtation with debt default and government shutdowns recklessly put people’s paychecks, health care and benefits at risk at a moment when they are preoccupied with how to pay rising health care and grocery bills, or to cope with a fast-warming climate unleashing natural disasters in nearly every corner of the nation.
“Disgust isn’t a strong enough word,” said Bianca Vara, a Democrat and grandmother of five in the Atlanta area who runs a stall at a flea market that crackles with discussions of politics.
She said she wanted leaders in Washington to address gun violence, or maybe just meaningfully crack down on the robocalls she gets. Instead, she watched with dismay as the Republican-controlled House was convulsed with an internecine melee.
“It’s worse than in elementary school,” she said, “Like a playground, like dodge ball: ‘You’re out! You’re not the speaker anymore! Hit him in the head with a red ball!’”
Several people said they purposely tune out political news, focusing instead on details like the price of cream cheese ($6.99), or matters wholly unconnected to politics — the Chicago Bears are 1 and 4, and Taylor Swift is showing up at Kansas City Chiefs games.
When Ms. Smith’s mother texted the news of Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as House speaker to the family text message chain, nobody responded. Eventually, Ms. Smith replied with a photo of new shelves she had just put up at home.
“Who’s McCarthy? I don’t even know,” said Rosemary Watson, 38, a registered independent in Mesa, Ariz., a battleground state that has narrowly elected Democrats over Trump-style Republicans in the past two elections. “I’ve purposely made that choice for my own health and well-being.”
Ms. Watson, a member of the Cherokee Nation, voted for Mr. Trump in 2020 and said she did not feel politically moved by actions President Biden has taken to conserve land sacred to Native Americans or to provide billions of dollars in new tribal funding. She said she would support Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in the 2024 presidential race as a jolt to the two-party system.
Cynthia Taylor, 58, a Republican paralegal in the Houston area whose husband works for a rifle manufacturer, was aghast at the ouster of Mr. McCarthy and the latest near-shutdown, calling the brinkmanship a symptom of growing lawlessness in American society.
“We seem to be starting to go down the line of, if I don’t agree with you, I’m going to kick you out,” she said. “Everybody is out for themselves. Everybody is out for their 15 minutes of fame.”
A survey that the Pew Research Center conducted in July found a country united by a discontent with their political leaders that crosses race, age and partisan divides. Sixty-five percent of Americans polled said they felt exhausted when they thought about politics.
Only 16 percent of American adults said they trusted the federal government, close to the lowest levels in seven decades of polling. Nearly 30 percent of people said they disliked both the Democratic and Republican parties, a record high. Yet in recent years, Americans have turned out to vote in record numbers — mostly to re-elect incumbents.
“I never thought I’d live in times like this,” said Cindy Swasey, a 66-year-old widow in Dover, N.H. Ms. Swasey, who voted twice for President Trump but thinks of herself as an independent, said she used to like Representative Matt Gaetz and the infusion of newer, younger energy he had brought to Congress — before he played a central role in the turmoil this week.
She has recently decided to skip watching future presidential debates.
Working-class and middle-class Americans have seen their wages rise lately, but many say the gains pale in comparison with the rising cost of living. Thousands of union workers, from the automotive industry to health care to Hollywood, have voted with their feet by striking for better contracts.
“Right now, it’s just been about getting back to work — figuring out how to put food on my plate and keep a roof over my head and put gas in my car,” said McKinley Bundick, a writer’s assistant for the CBS program “SEAL Team” who was out of work for five months while the Writers Guild of America was on strike.
Several Democratic voters said their revulsion with the state of American politics was rooted in Mr. Trump’s brand of angry grievance and the election lies that stoked the Jan. 6 rioters. At the same time, several said they were dreading the prospect of another contest between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, and would rather fast-forward through the next presidential cycle and find someone — anyone — new.
“This is the best you can give us from both parties? Are you kidding me?” said Joseph Albanese, a 49-year-old technology product specialist in Chicago who voted for Mr. Biden in 2020, but is considering skipping next year’s election altogether.
For people living on an entirely different coast from the Capitol — especially younger voters — Washington’s dysfunction can seem like sensational infighting in a distant world.
“It’s overwhelming, it’s a lot going on,” said Dionna Beamon, 28, who lives in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles. “So really, ignorance is bliss.”
Ms. Beamon, a hair stylist, said she and her friends were more concerned about issues like mental health. Her mother died of a heart attack less than two years ago and she has grappled with how to address her grief.
“I feel like a lot of people are depressed now,” she said. “That’s a huge topic for my age group. The world hasn’t been the same after Covid, and when it started, we were in our early 20s. ”
Vivian Santos-Smith, 21, a senior at Howard University, said her biggest concern was the $10,000 of student debt she would have to start repaying after graduation. President Biden canceled $9 billion in student loan debt this week, but his wider efforts to cancel some $400 billion more were scuttled by the Supreme Court.
She wants to be a political scientist, and one of her first challenges is trying to make sense of this moment.
“It seems as if ‘House of Cards’ is reality now,” she said. “The outlook is just bleak.”
Corina Knoll, Jacey Fortin, Robert Chiarito and Darren Sands contributed reporting.