Politicians should look in mirror to see why trust is low
CALLAGHAN; The News Tribune
It's nice to know we can trust politicians to take full advantage
of the whole trust-in-government issue.
When trust is absent, trust is everywhere. Rhetorically, at least.
Gov. Gary Locke's tough-love budget will help restore trust in government,
we're told. New attempts to let the state auditor grade the performance
of agencies will do it if the budget doesn't.
And every transportation plan has been portrayed as the vital first
step toward rebuilding trust.
Advice to legislators: If your bill is in trouble this session, reposition
it as an attempt to restore the relationship between government and
the people. Make sure to drop Tim Eyman's name a few times.
All this talk of trust in government presumes three things: That people,
in fact, mistrust their government; that this is something new; and
that whatever fix government comes up with can be trusted enough to
do any good. (Groucho Marx was quoted once as saying: "Politics
is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing
it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedy.")
Polls certainly show that trust is declining. One long-running poll
conducted by the National Election Studies program at the University
of Michigan showed that in 1958, 73 percent said they trusted the
federal government "most of the time" or "just about
always." That dropped to 36 percent in 1974 after those two notorious
trustbusters, Vietnam and Watergate. It fell to 21 percent in 1994
but had climbed back to a still-low 44 percent in 2000.
So, if we can trust the polls, Americans don't trust their government
like they used to. And most big institutions - corporations, religion,
the news media - have seen a similar erosion in trust.
But another poll, this one by DDB Needham, suggests a broader societal
change. In 1960, 55 percent of those polled agreed that "most
people can be trusted." By 2000, only 33 percent of us trusted
Trust itself is a relative concept. Many don't trust government because
it might disappoint them and cause them to become disillusioned. But
others - particularly those in the immigrant and minority communities
- don't trust government because it might arrest them and cause them
to become incarcerated. Big difference.
But if we trust government less, what should we do about it? Isn't
some mistrust of government healthy? Would we have been better off
with a little more skepticism in the 1950s and early 1960s when polls
showed high levels of trust that turned out to be misplaced?
"Deconstructing Distrust," a 1998 study, stated that the
consequences of mistrust are complex but not necessarily all negative.
"The growth of this opinion since the 1960s has not been accompanied
by a commensurate loss of appetite for government programs or solutions,"
reported the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "Opinions
about using the government to solve important problems have changed
remarkably little over the past 30 years."
The main ill effect, the Pew center concluded, is that "interest
in public affairs, news from Washington and voting are victims of
low public esteem for politicians." Fewer than half of the eligible
voters cast ballots in 2000. Rather than look for new legislation
to rebuild trust, perhaps the remedy lies elsewhere, perhaps in the
mirror. Politicians who say what they think, regardless of the politics
and regardless of the consequences, are attractive to voters.
Voters only turn away when the spin doctors - fueled by campaign dollars
and a cynical press - define straight talk as reckless and changed
minds as waffling. Politicians say meaner things about politicians
than the rest of us ever could.
Only voters can make honesty and candor virtues again. When they do,
the smart politicians will take notice.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657