Washington has tough task ahead to regain our trust
By Gene Budig and Alan Heaps
Every poll and every survey show that there is growing mistrust of the federal government.
Consider the following.
— The Pew Research Center tells us that only 26 percent of the public trusts the government in Washington "just about always/most of the time." Seventy-three percent trust the government in Washington "some of the time/never." In 2002, 55 percent trusted Washington.
— The Reader's Digest/Wagner Group compiled a list of the 100 "most trusted people in America." It contains only one currently elected official, President Obama at No. 65. Judge Judy ranks higher, at No. 28, than any Supreme Court judge. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes in at No. 36.
— A survey of 18- to 29-year-old undergraduates by the Institute of Politics at Harvard finds that the only one federal institution — the military — has a positive trust ranking. The Supreme Court, president, Congress, and federal government — from best to worst — are distrusted. All show a decline in trust since 2010.
— The decline in trust in government is not limited to the United States. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, in 2012, of the "seventeen of the 25 countries surveyed, government is now trusted by less than half to do what is right." Only 12 were in this category in 2011.
Distrust, in and of itself, is not necessarily negative. It can be a powerful motivating factor that leads to vigilance, questioning, criticism and debate on important and complex issues. But there is a tipping point, a point where the mistrust becomes so great that people turn away from government and seek solutions elsewhere. In this environment democracy cannot survive.
We may, in fact, be at that tipping point because we are seeing that turning away phenomenon. A recent USA Today/Bipartisan Policy Center poll of a nationally representative sample of adults asked which was the best way to make major positive changes in our society: "through local, state, and federal governments" or "through community involvement?" By a whopping 2-to-1 margin (60 percent to 28 percent), those polled opted for community involvement.
Aside from rhetoric, Washington has shown little enthusiasm for restoring our trust. But if it ever does get serious, it will require aggressive movement on three parallel paths.
One, it must break the gridlock and show us, not through words but through bold and comprehensive action, that it is ready, willing and able to make this nation a better place. This requires backing away from the paralyzing partisanship that has taken hold of our nation's capital.
Two, it must prove that it is concerned with the many, not the few. There is a perception, if not a reality, that Washington is primarily interested in serving the wealthy, the powerful, the entrenched powers. It is viewed as the guardians of the status quo rather than progress.
Three, it must become more transparent. Those outside the beltway believe that agendas are hidden, decisions are made in secret, through a process understood and available to only a few. Changes of this kind will neither be easy nor fast. Just look at the number of candidates, on both the left and the right, who we have elected on the promise to "change the way Washington does business" only to see them quickly become part of the system they once so thoroughly excoriated.
There is an old adage that in a democracy you get the government you deserve. In the case of the United States, this is certainly true. Ultimately, we elect most of the officials, we tolerate their behavior and, in many ways, their values mirror those of the larger society.
Real change will only come about when we demand that it happen. As Cassius said: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves ..."
A final word to the wise: No country has met with greater success than the United States in using a unique form of democracy, one that relies on the art of political compromise in the governmental process. Extremists need to be heard, from the far left and the far right and every group in between, but they cannot dominate on matters of fundamental and essential importance to the nation. In so many ways, common sense has eluded us in recent times.
Gene Budig, a former chancellor/president of three major state universities (Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas) and past president of Major League Baseball's American League, is chairman of The News-Gazette Board of Directors. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.