But there is a serious danger here for the GOP as well. Republicans who believe that their only political task is to reflect — to exactly mirror — public distrust for government have drawn the wrong lesson. Those who ride such purely negative populism to power will merely become newer objects of public disdain. Americans do not want public officials who share their contempt for government; they want public officials who no longer justify it.

The alternative to grandiosity and incompetence is not to do nothing. It is to achieve policy goals in ways that are practical, incremental and effective. Americans have not ceased looking for responses to routine educational failure or persistent economic stagnation — or to the problems of an expensive, inequitable health-care system. These are public challenges, in which government plays an inescapable role. A successful political party will provide a superior conception of that role.

This realization seemed to have dawned last year in the immediate aftermath of the GOP’s presidential loss. The Republican National Committee issued its Growth and Opportunity Project report, a brutally self-critical call for innovation in appealing to younger, minority and working-class voters.