If the current debt-ceiling debacle—with no end in sight—has you hankering for a kinder, saner, better Washington, you certainly wouldn’t be alone.
The sentiment seems common these days—frustrated Americans across the country are tying up telephones lines on Capitol Hill and crashing their representatives’ websites, urging elected officials to get it together. An expletive-laced hashtag on Twitter has also gained traction in recent days, expressing rage not just at the congressional logjam but also at the entire city.
It’s unsurprising, then, that along with every conceivable measure of economic health, there’s a metric of a healthy democracy that’s at risk of tanking if Washington can’t manage to figure a way out of this one: the public’s trust in government.
Take it from Bill Galston, a political theorist and former Clinton administration adviser who is now a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution—this, too, is cause for concern.
“The mistrust in government makes it more difficult to do what needs to be done,” Galston said. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Americans are going to be asked to make difficult sacrifices in the next decade to get the country’s fiscal house in order and ensure long-term economic health, Galston said.
That’s going to be a hard sell to the public when it has little confidence in the people doing the asking.
Trust in government was at record lows even before the current crisis got under way. An April 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center gave a sobering snapshot of Americans’ attitudes: At that point, only 22 percent of those surveyed said they could trust government “almost always or most of the time.” Three out of four said then that they were either frustrated or angry with the state of affairs in Washington.
“It’s probably not going to get a whole lot lower—I may have to eat those words,” Galston said. “It may be that what’s going on is simply confirming people in the views of government that they had reached during the course of a number of years.”
Skepticism about government isn’t a new phenomenon in the United States—it’s hard-wired into the system, with power divided among three branches of government at the state as well as the federal level. Nevertheless, distrust subsided during the 20th century as the country battled the Great Depression, came out on the winning side of two world wars, and brought middle-class prosperity to a large swath of the population. The trust number stood at 76 percent in 1964.
Then, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and runaway inflation in the mid-to-late-1970s caused confidence to plummet. It was beginning an upward climb again during the end of the Clinton administration only to be reversed midway into George W. Bush’s presidency.
Exacerbating matters is that the current crisis is entirely Washington-made. This is, Galston points out, no Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s clearly a crisis generated by political decisions and that could be brought to an end,” he said.
The only historical parallel that political scientists can think of is in the 1890s when there was a similar political shootout between agricultural and industrial interests. It took a decisive election to move the nation forward.
So, how does Washington restore trust today?
Galston has had a long career in the policy arena in Washington, during which he has witnessed for himself the increasing polarization in politics. In addition to writing extensively about political theory and governance issues, he was the issues director for Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign from 1982 to ’84; the deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy and executive director of the National Commission on Civic Renewal during the Clinton administration; and a senior adviser to Al Gore during his 2000 presidential run.
But, of course, as with President Obama and Congress, he doesn’t have any easy answers.
“Political polarization and declining trust in government have been building up for four decades. You don’t snap your fingers and erase 40 years of American history,” Galston said. “At this point, the issues dividing the parties are so fundamental that we really do need an election waged on those issues to help us resolve this gridlock.”
This article appears in the July 28, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.