The number is startling. Only 22 percent of Americans “trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time,” according to the Pew Research Center. “Trust in government rarely gets this low,” said Andrew Kohut, the center’s director.
This is a dangerous trend because it reflects our growing inability to trust one another, to work together to solve common problems. And Lord knows we have them: from warring terrorists and warming temperatures to the demographic car bomb of retiring baby boomers that’s about to explode.
Government is not them; it’s us. It’s not some alien force imposed against our will. Government is friends and neighbors, schoolteachers and firefighters, soldiers and social workers. And government is a tax-collection system that finances services many of us use every day, from roads and airports to food stamps and student loans. Those same tax dollars fund agencies that keep our water clean, our food safe and our markets honest.
And yet the numbers are clear: Americans are hostile, suspicious and, at times, wildly uninformed. How often during the healthcare debate did protestors demand that government keep its hands off Medicare?
We believe strongly that government is not the answer to all of our problems, or even most of them, and a vigorous structure of checks and balances serves an invaluable purpose. As Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, told NPR, “When you think about the beginning of the country, it was all about throwing off the shackles of the English monarchy.”
As a result, said Hetherington, “We set up institutions that were designed to cut down on people imposing their will on ordinary folks. Given those circumstances, it’s not surprising that we’ve had a legacy of distrust of government ever since the beginning.”
But as the Pew survey showed, that healthy distrust has morphed into an unhealthy cynicism, a growing belief that government is not for the people and by the people but against the people. And there’s no doubt that government can be its own worst enemy, alienating citizens by making promises it cannot keep and placing short-term partisan advantage over long-term national interest. As Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, told the Associated Press after seeing the Pew results: “This should be a wake-up call. Both sides are guilty.” They sure are, and here are just two examples.
The Republicans took power under George W. Bush as the party of small government and fiscal responsibility; yet they cut taxes and increased spending in such a reckless disregard for the laws of economics that budget surpluses turned into stupefying deficits.
Then the Democrats under Barack Obama passed a trillion-dollar healthcare bill that was partly “paid for” by promises to cut payments to doctors and hospitals; yet they have shown absolutely no willingness or ability to take such unpopular steps.
Outside forces have also undermined government’s reputation. “Public satisfaction plunged amid the financial crisis” last year, reported Pew, and partisan “politics has poisoned the well,” added Kohut. For example: 53 percent of Republicans trusted government when Ronald Reagan lived in the White House, but only 12 percent feel that way with Obama in charge.
Moreover, for an entire generation now, politicians in both parties have run for office by tearing down the very government they want to lead. Reagan campaigned against the “puzzle palace on the Potomac” and derided “welfare queens” buying beer on food stamps. The message was strong and simple: Government does not serve ordinary hardworking Americans, but raises their taxes to pay for lazy cheats.
Democrats have always been more sympathetic to government (one in three trust it today), but Obama played on the same anti-Washington feelings that helped elect Reagan, running against a political culture that he argued was dominated by well-connected lobbyists and special interests.
This incessant drumbeat of anti-government language has devastated confidence in our public institutions. As former President Bill Clinton said on the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, “The words we use really do matter, because there’s this vast echo chamber and they go across space and they fall on the serious and delirious alike.”
He warned against encouraging violence as a political tactic, but the Timothy McVeighs or the armed militias are not the real threat to America’s civic health. The real threat is our loss of faith in our common goodness and good sense. In a very real way, if we hate our government, we hate ourselves.
Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
Copyright 2010, Steven and Cokie Roberts
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.