High-profile congressional squabbles have pushed public confidence in elected leaders to all-time lows. Guest columnist William D. Ruckelshaus, a respected veteran of federal and state government, offers his suggestions for what citizens can do to restore trust in government.
Over the past 50 years a bad thing has been happening in America: The public’s trust in our federal government and other basic institutions has been steadily eroding.
In 1963, the last year of the Kennedy administration, a New York Times/CBS Poll found that 63 percent of the people responded “yes” when asked if they trusted the federal government to do what is right. Last month, 10 percent of the respondents replied “yes” to the same question in the same poll. Similar declines of trust can be seen in public opinion surveys involving big corporations and big unions. There is more public trust in state and local government but there, too, declines have occurred.
This is a bad thing for one simple reason: Free societies don’t work very well when the bond of trust between the people and their government or other institutions is broken. If mistrust persists over an extended period, the very fabric of our American democratic experiment may begin to unravel.
The current abominable level of civic discourse may be a leading indicator of that. Describing our president as a socialist because he wants a bigger role for government in solving our country’s problems, or calling anyone who believes our government could be more effective and efficient a heartless mossback, are examples of highly partisan rhetorical excess that would not be tolerated in a period where public trust was higher.
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Some would say, “It’s been ever thus.” Our country was founded on a breaking of the bonds of trust between the colonies and a remote central power. Remember the cry “taxation without representation”? The colonists believed they had no voice in what was affecting their lives and they revolted. Eight long years later, America was born.
The broad sense of trust in our own central government has ebbed and flowed ever since. We survived a brutal Civil War when several Southern states tried to secede from a union they no longer trusted. Our Constitution explicitly put off dealing with slavery for 20 years and after that the trust erosion started in earnest.
Starting in the mid-’60s with the Vietnam War, followed by Watergate and for the first time ever, the resignation of an American President, the trust level has been declining.
To reverse this trend, our country, its leaders and its people must face reality.
There are good reasons why trust has declined. Our leaders are not leading nor are they leveling with the American people, whose support is necessary for a functioning democracy. No call for shared sacrifice has been issued regardless of the obvious need. We have been borrowing money for several decades and placing the burden to pay it back on our children and grandchildren. There have been brief periods of respite, such as the budgetary surpluses in the last two years of the Clinton administration, but the gap between what we want and what we are willing to pay for has been steadily widening.
Over the first years of this century, the annual deficits are primarily driven by increased costs of Social Security, medical care for increasing numbers, financing our national defense and two off-budget wars at once and interest on our national debt. The estimated deficit for the current fiscal year is $1.2 trillion which will add to our $15 trillion national debt.
Unemployment hovers around 8-9 percent and a weak recovery means we will not reduce the yearly deficits by the fiscal benefit of economic growth. None of this induced the bipartisan supercommittee, appointed by and responsible to Congress, to offer solutions to these problems.
We need to balance our domestic energy demands and their carbon intensity with domestic and global environmental protection and, for our own security reasons, help reduce the world’s dependence on unstable nations for the supply of oil.
We need a sensible immigration policy that controls access into our country and allows some possibility of citizenship to the 15 million illegal aliens living here now.
We desperately need to get our financial regulatory system in order so that the executives of a few banks on Wall Street do not hugely profit at the expense of the economic prosperity of the vast majority of Americans and then ask those same Americans to bail them out when the banks’ profligate ways edge them toward bankruptcy.
We need to reform and simplify our tax system so it doesn’t reward only those with the greatest access to the corridors of power in Washington. Everyone should pay something and everyone should pay a fair share. Neither of these things is happening now.
We must bring our nation’s revenues and expenditures into balance. This need not happen immediately; particularly when our economy is stalled as it now is, but we need to begin soon, addressing our overpromises on Social Security and medical care. We must also re-examine our belief that to remain secure we must involve ourselves in military combat that continues to weaken us fiscally and diminish the attractiveness of American democracy to the rest of the world.
I could go on but these unmet needs, coupled with our government’s failure to address them, is enough to warrant wonderment about who are the 10 percent who do trust government.
The lack of action and candor about our ongoing problems feeds the mistrust that so characterizes the relationship between the American citizen and their government.
The lack of public trust can last for years, as it certainly did in the run up to the Civil War and during the Great Depression without doing permanent damage. But, eventually, it will eat away at our confidence in our leaders and our free institutions.
We citizens need to do several things to reassert our role as “We the people of the United States … “
First of all, we must stop blaming others and accept some responsibility ourselves by not allowing the political response to our problems to be dominated by the ideological edges. Never raising taxes or believing every problem has a governmental solution make attractive bumper stickers but not wise policies.
In this coming election year, we need to insist that those who would represent us should:
• Stop signing pledges to anything except to do your level best to represent the short- and long-term interests of your constituents and the American people. Any time a politician breaks away from protecting the sacred cows of his party, he is treated like a traitor. Whether it’s rationalizing Social Security, or the costs of health care, or raising taxes to begin to pay for our public appetites, the wrath of the true believers hauls them up short and threatens them with retribution. We have turned over our electoral power to interest groups whose uncompromising positions weaken our democracy’s ability to fashion workable solutions to our problems.
• Stop partisan posturing. We’re sick of it. Our problems are deep and wide but solvable if wisely and rationally approached.
• Tell us why we should vote for you, not what’s wrong with your opponent.
• Show us you understand our nation’s problems and tell us what you are going to do about them.
• Promise you will work with whomever your colleagues turn out to be and fashion durable solutions in our national interests.
• Tell us you believe compromise is not a bad word. Our Constitution is proof of that and it has worked pretty well for 225 years.
• Get things done. Gridlock is no longer acceptable and must be broken if the restoration of our trust is to be earned.
• Act in a trustworthy manner and you will be trusted and so will the government of which you are a part.
• Stop tearing down the institution (Congress) to which you want us to elect you. We don’t want to hear our congressman say, “You think Congress is bad; you don’t know the half of it … ” Stop boosting yourself by mocking the institution of which you want to be a part.
That’s not all we need to do but it’s a good start. One of the things I have marveled at over 50 years of working in the state and federal government is the number of talented civil servants who dedicate their entire lives to public service. The vast majority of them work hard every day and do their best to serve the public interest.
Of course, there are elected and unelected exceptions — after all, the people in government are human beings. But most all of the people in government really do act in trustworthy ways. I realize this is a tough sell right now but it’s true.
In recent decades we have allowed public problems to go unaddressed for too long and it has virtually destroyed our essential public trust.
There is really only one answer to this problem and that is for us to elect leaders with the political courage to level with us about our problems and fashion solutions that warrant our support.
We must insist on this happening. I am confident we can do that just as we have throughout our history.
William Ruckelshaus was the first and fifth administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and 1983, respectively. In between he was acting director of the FBI. More recently he was the first chairman of the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Puget Sound Partnership.