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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Trust and Faith in Government -- What's In the Political "Sausage"?

According to the Pew Research Center, public trust in the government remains near historic lows. Only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).

This lack of confidence is no surprise to anyone with a pulse. The public has instant access to a sea of information from cagey pundits who stir, spin, and endlessly sustain the most juicy political scandals and contentious reports of governmental ineptitude. Talking heads survive by analyzing all the questionable actions of government officials and then pontificating with particular bias about the "right" or "wrong" of something as simple as a breath out of place.  

Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, says for over 60 years overall trust in government has been in steady decline -- even in good times. He thinks the tremendous increase in transparency may contribute to part of the blame.

Wolfers explains ...

"Although government is more transparent now than it was in the 1940s and '50s -- when people trusted government more -- the very transparency might be the problem... We actually now get to see ... into that smoke-filled room where we're seeing the deals being cut. You see how sausage is made; you don't like eating sausage as much anymore."

Wolfers says he isn't sure whether that trust in government that existed in the late '50s and early '60s can return. "The political landscape and the technology with which we monitor our government has changed," he says.

(Mary Altaffer. "Trust In America: Recovering What's Lost."
National Public Radio. October 30, 2011.)

Tom Brokaw is a newsman who remembers when government and public institutions were much more trusted in the country. He reflects on the past of post-World War II America:

"We trusted big institutions; we trusted government to do the right thing. It was a robust time in American in which there was enormous pride in what this country had become coming out of the Great Depression and World War II."

Brokaw says that much of the current loss of faith is that things people took for granted and put faith in turned out not to be true.

"The younger people who are coming out of college now ... have watched their parents lose jobs or get furloughed," he says. "That's led them to return home in many instances ... because they say, 'We can trust our parents, we don't trust corporations.'"

It's often been said that the current generation does not expect to do better than the generation that came before. But Brokaw says we have to re-examine what that means. The idea that we'll have ever-larger homes, second homes, more cars and more of everything can't go on infinitely, he says.

"I think the question should be reframed in terms of: What does that mean to have a better life than your parents?" he says.

Brokaw says more emphasis should be placed on the quality of life and life's experiences such as the education that you get, the contribution that you make to your country and how you fit in to your community.

"Those are really more important measures of society over the long haul than the piling up of toys and things," he says. "We've kind of lost sight of that."

(Mary Altaffer. "Trust In America: Recovering What's Lost."
National Public Radio. October 30, 2011.)

In Government We Trust?

Have politicians always been unscrupulous? Have they always made many unpopular decisions? I would say yes to both questions. It seems that the nature of the business itself leads to questionable alliances and partisan decisions. But, the question here has more to do with perception. The question is "Why do Americans show such a lack of trust in their elected officials?"

If transparency is largely responsible for our distrust of government, we are merely seeing more clearly the actual workings of people involved in politics -- more ... more of both the "bad" and the "good." Evidently, although we citizens cherish that clarity, we have also convinced ourselves that some politicians get elected to do mostly "bad." 

Our faith in government should rely upon confidence and belief that the people we elect will not harm us in any way and will always look out for our best interests. History shows that in the past (although we may then have been seeing through a glass, darkly), when someone from the opposing party was elected, most of us used to chalk it up to majority rule and had faith that the official was going to work in concert with others to advance the common good. Faith in the government then was spiritual in the sense that we felt confidence in our souls that our leaders would practice core American beliefs.

What is the main tenant of that faith? When a person took office, we understood that person would fairly represent all of us -- whether the officeholder was a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent. Even when we were given opportunities to distrust politicians, we maintained faith in the governmental process.

But, of course, the inevitable does happen. For whatever reasons, elected officials often break our trust and betray our ideals. Then, when we see this time and again (even though we know  Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt committed major gaffes), our trust dwindles, and the end result is a complete loss of faith in our most cherished institution.

So, I believe, a shift in trust has occurred that divides the government and causes continual, internal warfare.

Today, people tend to trust a particular party and rally behind it as the "keeper of their sacred faiths." Rigid, unwavering party loyalty has become paramount to trusting the personal integrity of politicians. Thus, political parties have largely usurped public trust in government by promising like-thinking voters the moon and a key to the private restroom. People believe more in the power and the policy of the party than they do in the individual who truly represents the democratic ideal.

Parties presently push the strategy of divide and conquer: They have successfully stolen the trust people once gave to the government in which both Democrats and Republicans faithfully served. The public no longer reveres a government comprised of political diversity. Faith in the party, not faith in the government, rules the political landscape. The faith is driven by selfish interests and perpetuated by fear. Purposeful division in the name of the party creates stalemate, inaction, and ultimately molds unfaithful servants who simply work for reelection.

I agree with Brokaw that we should re-examine the American definition of prosperity -- carefully delineating wants and needs in the process -- while understanding that "bigger" and "more" seldom lead to a substantially better life unless society, as a whole, becomes stronger in the process. To do that, we must include, not divide; we must embrace, not thwart; and we must compromise, not stonewall. A strong belief in humanity must take precedence over selfish interests.

We can and must build foundations of trust between all people, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, Christian and Muslim. We must once again instill faith in the government. Only a government that works together to achieve common goals is worthy of our trust. The present state of constant animosity and blame shakes the foundation of a progressive democracy. 

And, what about transparency? Just because we can see how the "sausage" is made doesn't mean we shouldn't eat it. Yet, I think it does mean that it should be formulated with full disclosure.

I hope that bipartisan support will reduce conniving, dealing, and wrongdoing. In a government that is truly controlled by the people, the majority vote puts the candidate in office. For the term, the elected official deserves cooperation, not total condemnation. Perhaps it is time to call for the faithful to respect government and to stop distrusting the opposing political party. The oppressive hatred shames our nation.       

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