A Dirth of Trust

Sebastian Mallaby's op-ed in the Washington Post looks at the current political climate through an interesting lens - trust:

You don't hear much about trust these days. Instead, we want accountability.


In the 1990s, after academics and pundits began talking about trust, the nation did actually become more trusting. The share of Americans saying they trust government "most of the time" or "just about always" rose from 21 percent in 1994 to 56 percent in 2002. Equally, elections became less abrasively focused on accountability. In 2000, according to John Geer of Vanderbilt University, a relatively low 40 percent of the messages in presidential TV spots were negative, down from 47 percent four years earlier.

But some time after the Iraq invasion, these trends reversed. In 2004 the share of Americans saying they trusted government fell to 47 percent, and this month a CBS News-New York Times poll put it at a rock-bottom 28 percent. Meanwhile Geer's measures show that in the 2004 election negative messages jumped to 50 percent of the total, and he guesses that this year's congressional races are the most negative in history.


But trust, when not abused, is nonetheless an asset. Accountants, lawyers and online training sessions impose costs on businesses; it would be cheaper to trust people if that were possible. Likewise, as Marc Hetherington of Vanderbilt University has demonstrated, government is constrained if nobody trusts it. The Great Society programs were possible because Americans trusted government in the 1960s; the creation of the Medicare prescription drug program arguably reflected the peaking of trust in government in 2003. But Bill Clinton's health care reform was thwarted in the low-trust early 1990s, and nobody now trusts government to modernize entitlements. Meanwhile President Bush had enormous foreign policy momentum in 2002-03 because Americans trusted him. Thanks to the Iraq mess, Americans are now focused on holding Bush accountable, and his options are limited.
To borrow a phrase, Americans tried the 'trust' thing and have moved on to 'verify.'

As a Liberal, I believe that government can be a great force for good. Enlightened government can affect change that no private citizen or private institution can achieve. This is only possible, though, if the population trusts its government.

As Mr. Mallaby notes, the dawn of the 21st century, both for good reasons and tragic ones, provided the American government with a population that didn't just trust its government, but hungered for it to act.

Unfortunately for America and the world, that government was lead by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Supported by the likes of Tom Delay, Duke Cunningham, Scooter Libby, Bob Ney, Armstrong Williams, Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley, Ken Lay, Denny Hastert, Rick Santorum, and the full weight of FoxNews, our government squandered that trust in an effort to enrich themselves and their supporters, enact legislation to divide America, engage in questionable foreign policy, and ensure their own continued power.

The 2006 election is shaping up the way it is because the people of America don't trust George W. Bush and don't trust a Republican congress to verify that he's acting in America's best interest.

The absence of trust isn't limited to America's internal politics. The idea that a French leader would echo De Gaulle's sentiment that "the word of the president of the United States is good enough for me" is laughable. The mistrust of the United States in the Middle East is bad enough, but even our long-time allies in Europe don't trust America.

As every person who has ever been in a relationship knows, trust is something that is easily broken and can take a long time to regain. A Democratic sweep of the House and Senate a week from today, even if the gains are retained and the presidency added in 2008 would only be a small step back towards a trustworthy government in America.

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