Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Roots of Mistrust in Government

I agree 100% with Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin that public mistrust of government is the biggest challenge we face as liberals and Democrats. For several years now I've been writing about the fact that the best way to advance a liberal agenda is through good government.

But there are some things that they left out of their analysis that are important to address if we are to have any chance of rebuilding that trust. For example, they give only a passing nod to the role Republicans have played in sowing the seeds of distrust. In doing so, they avoid any discussion about the roots on which it was built (and maintained today).

Here's what they say about when the problem began.
Since the 1960’s, the American National Election Studies has asked voters the question, “Would you say the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?” Majorities of Americans throughout the 1960’s believed government was run for the benefit of all people, and subsequently trusted it to do what is right in the classic measure of trust in government.

At no point since 1970, with the exception of a brief time after 9/11, has the ANES reported a majority of voters saying the government was run for the benefit of all people. These beliefs cut across partisan and ideological lines suggesting that Americans have serious doubts not only with the performance or direction of government but more importantly with its basic orientation as a guarantor of the public good.
If we think about what was going on with Republicans from the 1960's to the 1970's, it is impossible to avoid focusing on their adoption of the Southern Strategy in response to the Civil Rights Movement. It was named as such because the South is where the strategy took hold. But the message was also a national one initially focused on "state's rights" as a way of undermining the federal government's role on behalf of civil rights. So, at the outset, the Southern Strategy was a way to promote the idea that the federal government shouldn't be trusted.

By the 1980's Ronald Reagan's message that "government is not the solution, but the problem" was buttressed by his constant invocation of "welfare queens"...a message that is very much in vogue today in references of everything from Obama as the "food stamp president" to welfare recipients as "roaches," and healthcare as slavery. The extent of the problem was exemplified by the Republican suggestion that "we the people" are somehow separate from the government in their over-the-top reaction to President Obama's "you didn't build that" during the 2012 election.

Recently Republicans have added another layer to their strategy of undermining trust in the federal government. Here is how former Republican staffer Mike Lofgren describes their total obstruction of anything President Obama attempted to accomplish.
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard." This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s - a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn ("Government is the problem," declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).
Taking stock of the roots of voter's distrust of government helps us pinpoint two things that are essential to understand in order to craft solutions designed to rebuild trust. The first thing we cannot ignore in all this is the racism Republicans exploit in order to sow the seeds of distrust. That cannot be swept under the rug if we are ever going to move forward on this issue.

Which brings up the second point that is essential to understand. In the quote above, Lofgren points out that the Republican strategy to promote distrust in government "plays on weaknesses of both the voting public and the news media." It is the latter that we need to discuss as a major barrier to solving this problem.

For example, when Republicans exploit racism by conjuring up Reagan's lies about welfare queens, is the public provided with information that challenges that narrative? When President Obama bends over backwards to work with Republicans on a stimulus package or health care reform or reducing the federal deficit, does the media note that? Or do they fall back on the false equivalence of "both sides are to blame," feeding the narrative that leads to "a plague on both your houses?"

We all know by now that our media's attention is focused almost completely on reporting crises. And so, we heard a lot the past few years about the failed rollout of and the backlog at the VA (created at least partially by Shinseki's insistence that Vietnam vets suffering from PTSD and the effects of agent orange were eligible for VA services) and problems at the IRS. But have we heard much of anything about the solutions?

For weeks we were treated to scary stories about Ebola and then heard almost nothing about what our government did to disrupt that epidemic. It is only natural that we were gripped with stories about the devastation in New Orleans after Katrina. But we have been told almost nothing about how well FEMA responded to Irene and Sandy. In the waning years of the George W. Bush administration we heard a lot about the corruption and politicization of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. But how many of us have heard the story about how AG Holder and others worked to restore the very division that is now at the forefront of combating police abuse?

There are stories about good government that happen every day. But the media doesn't tell them because they think we don't want to hear it. Maybe they're right.

In the end, I won't deny that Democrats/liberals still have a lot of work to do to reform our government. But we have now had over six years of an Obama administration dedicated to doing just that. The lack of acknowledgment of that progress by Teixeira and Halpin tells us something about why the distrust persists.


  1. Hi, Nancy. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I always appreciate your deep insight.

    Just a minor correction note: It looks like you tied your first hyperlink to the wrong web address. You must have intended to link to Ed Kilgore's post at Washington Monthly.

    1. Thank you for catching that! I've fixed the link.