A matter of trust

CNN published a fairly broad series of poll results this week, but perhaps the most notable was the fact that Americans’ trust in the federal government has dropped to an all-time low.

A CNN/ORC International Poll released Wednesday morning indicates that only 15 percent of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what’s right just about always or most of the time. Last September that figure was at 25 percent. Seventy-seven percent of people questioned say they trust the federal government only some of the time, and an additional eight percent volunteer that they never trust the government to do what’s right.

In the past five years the number who say they trust the government “always” or “most of the time” was usually in the low-to-mid 20’s. Before the recession hit that number was usually in the low-to-mid 30’s, and slightly more than a decade ago, it was in the high 30’s or occasionally just over 40 percent.

At a certain level, a healthy mistrust of the government is built into the American experiment, but before Watergate, most Americans trusted the government to do the right thing most, if not all, of the time.

And now we’re down to 15%. Ouch.

Seeing these results, I couldn’t help but think about Mike Lofgren, a retired GOP staffer on Capitol Hill, who last month offered a first-hand look at what motivates policymakers from his party. As Lofgren put it, congressional Republicans aren’t just eager to undermine Democrats at all costs, they’re also intent on undermining the public’s faith in political institutions themselves.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner…. Undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy [emphasis added]

The point is nihilism for nihlism’s sake; the point is to create a dynamic in which the American mainstream simply won’t look to government for policy solutions, because the public simply won’t trust public institutions to respond effectively and responsibly.

And once Americans are convinced to turn their backs on these institutions, Republicans will find it easier to shrink government — preferably to the size where it can be “drowned in a bathtub” — and cut taxes, which is generally the ultimate goal anyway.

Congratulations, Republicans. By refusing to be responsible, refusing to compromise, and refusing to govern, it looks like your strategy is working.