Politicians should look in mirror to see why trust is low



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 us.

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


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