There is nothing like a good writer’s prompt, and Heather Cox Richardson’s question of the week was “How can we restore trust in government?” I wondered if we’ve ever had trust in government. It’s complicated. It depends in part on what one believes government should or should not be doing. What are the essential functions of government? A hard right libertarian will answer one way, a hard left socialist will answer another. Extremists seem to think the political world is made only of one or the other, but between them lies a broad distribution generally lumped into those who lean toward laissez-faire, and those who lean toward liberal democracy. Whichever group is in power at the moment will have greater trust in government than the group not in power.
The history texts of my youth told a story of unified faith in a new kind of national government, a democratically representative republic. We learned of occasional disagreements, but they were always resolved with unity once more established. Even the Civil War was explained through the lens of reunification. To juvenile minds it gave the impression that trust and faith in American government was the American way, the American thing to do. It was, as Superman said, a matter of truth, justice, and the American way of life.
Wondering about these things, I poked through Pew Research files to see what they might reveal about trust in the federal government. From Eisenhower through the early Johnson years it was high, in the range of 75-80%. Yet they were years in which extreme right wingers were actively undermining it. Apoplectic about communism, hating all things New Deal related, and suspicious of uppity blacks demanding equal rights, they incited doubt about how trustworthy “big government” could be.
It’s been a downward trend ever since, with spikes of approval followed by plunging confidence. Reagan never got out of the 40% range. Early Clinton sank to around 20%, but late Clinton surged to 50%. Obama hovered in the 30% range, while Trump is around 20% and sinking. They’re not measures of presidential popularity, but of trust in the federal government as a whole. Ups and downs are heavily influenced by presidential actions, but they’re also influenced by other powerful politicians, domestic and foreign events, and thought and opinion leaders who advocate for different political ideologies. It would be hard, for instance, to dismiss the ability of talk radio and cable news personalities to move public opinion.
Public trust in federal agencies and programs is another variable. Recent Pew research suggests the Post Office is highly regarded by around 90% of the public. ICE, on the other hand, is trusted by only 46%, and non-white Americans trust it not at all. Social programs initiated by FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Obama are highly regarded, even as conservatives express concern about creeping socialism, fearing the government will take away rights, intrude on daily life, and tax ordinary people into poverty. Liberals, on the other hand, see the federal government moving away from democracy toward oligarchical authoritarianism that undermines the rights, freedom and opportunities of ordinary people. And no one likes a bureaucracy that is more about mindless enforcement than customer service. One can have little trust in a department, but have high regard for its programs. A conservative farmer friend has contempt for the Department of Agriculture, but loves its Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that compensates farmers for putting excess acreage into prairie restoration. What it means to trust the federal government depends entirely on what questions are asked.
So how can we restore trust in government, given the conditions we have to work with that appear to form an abstract mosaic of economic classes, racial groupings, and geographic differences in all their complex intricacies?
At the most fundamental level, we must teach American history and civics in a more comprehensive and honest way. It’s far past time to give up the sanitized mythology of unsullied American virtue imbuing an entire continent with its goodness. It doesn’t mean belittling or condemning our history. We can hold decision makers accountable for the what they did within the context of what was known and understood in their time, not our time. But we can also be honest about the effects those decisions have had to both build and corrupt. It means knowing our history in a more comprehensive and realistic way. It’s the only way to develop a greater public consensus about how we got to where we are, and how we might get to where we want to be next.
Libertarians of my acquaintance are convinced that big government is communist style socialism, and the autonomous self sufficient American is the epitome of the American democratic ideal. They believe the federal government should get out of the way, and stay out. Social welfare programs serve only to disincentivize personal responsibility and encourage dependency. Forty years ago Reagan claimed that the federal government is the problem, not the solution to America’s social ills. It stuck. Several decades of nothing but Beck, Limbaugh & Co. have sealed it. For them, everyone not with them is a liberal left wing socialist. Those claiming to be centrists are either lying or deluded. It doesn’t help that puerile outrages from the left confirm their worst fears.
Overcoming that momentum requires more than renewed history and civics K-12 education. Not that it’s too late. Adult versions could become fodder for social media. A more immediate need is a way to help libertarians, especially Western libertarians, be made aware that it is the federal government that has provided the rights and resources to enjoy their autonomous self sufficiency. Therefore, government is not the threat but the guarantor, and the same is due to others who have been denied the opportunity. How to do that is a problem. My guess is it has to be done through a massive program of social media instructive but entertaining content that can be easily shared. Think of it as something Prager might do, but with class, wit, and truth.
Two obstacles remain. Emotionally outraged left wingers are the kind who would destroy the village in order to save it. They make their passion for social justice clear, but their willingness to attack everything in their path is self defeating. It infuriates them when liberals and centrists take the worthy gems they offer to apply them in pragmatic ways. They don’t want restructuring, reform, or progress. They want revolution. History demonstrates that, given the opportunity to succeed, they have no idea what to do next. Despite their calls for equality, they are as exclusive, segregationist and elitist as any right wing oligarch. They have a right to their voice, and it must be heard for the good it offers, but the government upon their shoulders would be a disaster, not unlike the floundering mess our current would be autocrat has engineered.
The second obstacle is related to terms I’ve used: liberal, conservative, libertarian, tea party, left wingers. We lump people into categories, assigning generalized characteristics that fit no individual. We make gross assumptions about others, entitling us to shove them into the category of our choice, and never let them out. We have to be more careful. It entices us vs. them thinking, with us being right and them being wrong. That doesn’t absolve us from making moral judgments, but they must be made provisionally, based on verifiable observations.