Modern day politics has made citizens have distrust for all levels of government, from the federal all the way down to the local. Governments and politicians make promises they cannot or do not keep, spend frivolously and make commitments to causes that only line their pockets, completely disregarding the concerns of their constituents. In order for trust to be regained, governments need to open up...transparent in practice, not just words and politicians need to truly listen to those that put them in office, their constituents and put their concerns and causes above their own.
According to Joseph Nye, American's confidence in its government has been in steady decline since 1964. In 1964 three-quarters of Americans said they trusted the government to do the right thing most of the time; today, confidence hovers around a quarter, 21% to be exact (Gallup, 2009), with state governments being only slightly higher at 35% (Nye, 1997). Though the exact reasons for the low ratings are unknown, a possible explanation could be the lack of meaningful outcomes from Congress (Gallup, 2009/2007) and the extreme polarization of issues. Nye also suggests the discontent for government could be cyclical rather than the "deep disillusion with government."
Looking at all that has happened, even in just the last decade, it is evident that there is and should be a deep seated mistrust in our government. You could start by looking at the events that took place on 9/11/2001, the war in Iraq, the mishandling of hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the economy. All these events will be looked at in more detail and are meant to show, at least partially, why there are misgivings when it comes to trusting the government.
The attacks that occurred on September 11th, 2001 were horrific events that will forever be etched into the minds of Americans, just as Pearl Harbor was a generation ago. Shortly after the attacks, support for the government was at its highest as everyone stood behind our nation and its President to take out the people that caused these terrible acts of violence. However, as time went on and evidence started appearing that showed the several agencies within government had known of an event that was being planned and some even had been aware of the hijackers and their leader, trust began to wane. Knowing that information was in place months prior to 9/11 that could have prevented or at least decreased the chances of the attacks happening created a sense of disregard towards our government
Secondly, there was the run up to the Iraq War. The government, though it was more specifically a group of hawkish neo-cons, were pushing the idea of a preemptive war because they felt that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that we had to go in and take down their regime before our "final poof came in the form of a mushroom cloud," as former President G.W. Bush so frightenly put it. They were also touting that Iraq had and would help Al Qaeda. To everyone's dismay however, there were no weapons of mass destruction and Iraq had not posed a threat to the United States, nor did it have any ties to Al Qaeda due to the fact that Saddam Hussein and the ruling party of Iraq were of a different sect of Islam that historically do not get along or cooperate. All of that, plus the fact that the government is spending approximately $2 billion dollars a week on the war in Iraq (Bender, 2006) only add to the mistrust.
Thirdly, there is Hurricane Katrina and the federal government's response to it...which was seen as an epic failure to most. First off, the government failed to plan. After 9/11 spending on homeland security was ramped up to $50 billion a year and prior to 2001 the Federal Emergency Management Agency identified a hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of three catastrophic events facing America and The Houston Chronicle wrote in December 2001 that "The New Orleans hurricane scenario may be the deadliest of all (Boaz, 2005)." With all the warnings, it would appear that all levels of government would be prepared for such an event. In the years leading up to the hurricane however, Louisiana received more money than any other state for the Army Corps of Engineers but spent the money, not on levees and flood control but on unrelated projects (Boaz, 2005). The state and local governments also lacked evacuation plans. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University explained that the evacuation strategy for a Gulf Coast hurricane "did not plan for people who did not have lots of money, do not own cars, the poor, sick or the elderly (Featherstone, 2005)." Poor planning and even worse support following the hurricane making landfall showed that the federal, state and local governments could not take care of its citizens properly and further tarnished the trust that citizens had.
The next disaster that devastated America and added to the distrust of government was the economic meltdown that occurred at the end of 2008. Government did not have a direct hand in the economic crisis but its actions/inactions did help to contribute to it. First, the government kept interest rates low which encouraged subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages. Low interest rates and cheap, easy credit led to a huge housing boom and a massive increase in housing prices. From this, investment banks began investing heavily in a lightly regulated commodity, mortgage backed securities. The following chart, though found on Wikipedia, shows fairly accurately how the declining housing market severely impacted banks which ultimately led to the crisis.
The government's role, though limited, shows that they lacked the foresight to avert the current crisis. The kept interest rates historically low and allowed investment banks to take ever increasing risks with mortgage backed securities, with minimal regulation. This is just another example of how government can and often did, look the other way as long as profits were high and pockets were padded.
These examples were just a few that have occurred in recent history that put government's ineptitude on display and give cause to the mistrust that people feel towards government. Now on to how that trust can be regained, if it can be.
In order for the government to regain the trust of its citizens it must start to govern. This statement hits at the idea of partisan politics and fighting for issues because they are politically beneficial but they do not necessarily benefit the constituents. Political parties play a role in government, but a politician should do what is best for his/her electorate and not just blindly follow a party belief.
The second thing that government should do and the one thing that this author feels would change people's viewpoints drastically is honest transparency. Beyond just saying that you will be more transparent as a politician...actually follow through and put your business out there where it is easily accessible and understood. Government officials and agencies should show where they receive money from, who is lobbying them, where the money is spent, especially when it comes to amendments and pork projects. If information does not contain anything that has to do with national security then that information should be publicly available.
Government at all levels has the ability to regain people's trust but it will/would take a huge effort on the part on both citizens and government. Government would have to truly show that everything it does is in the best interest of those that it is to serve. Secondly, citizens would have to begin to tear down the skepticism of government for which it has carried for decades. Though these events are unlikely to happen anytime in the near future, it does offer a bit of hope for the future.
Hetherington, M.J. (2005). Why Trust Matters. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Rondinelli, Cheema, . (2003). Reinventing Government for the 21st Century. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press.
Nye, Zelikow, King, (1997). Why People Don't Trust Government. United States of America: President and fellows of Harvard College.
Gallup. (2009, September 24). Obama Approval Holding Steady in Low 50s. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/123182/Obama-Approval-Holding-Steady-Low-50s.aspx
Gallup. (2009, October 6). Approval of U.S. Congress Falls to 21%, Driven by Democrats. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/123491/Approval-Congress-Falls-21-Driven-Democrats.aspx
Gallup. (2007, September 5). Perceived Inaction Largely Behind Low Ratings of Congress. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/28600/Perceived-Inaction-Largely-Behind-Low-Ratings-Congress.aspx
Bender, B. (2006, September 28). Cost of Iraq war nearly $2b a week. The Boston Globe, http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2006/09/28/cost_of_iraq_war_nearly_2b_a_week/.
Boaz, D. (2005, September 19). Catastrophe in Big Easy Demonstrates Big Government's Failure. Retrieved from http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=4819
Featherstone, L. (2005, September 08). Slow Katrina evacuation fits pattern of injustice during crise. Retrieved from http://www.grist.org/article/featherstone-katrina/