Big Sort

Why No One Trusts the Government to Fix Anything Anymore

Over the past few decades, Congress hasn’t done a very good job of solving problems. (Congressional scholar Nelson Polsby once described Congress as being in a 30-year period of stalemate.) Now we expect these guys to rejigger the world’s financial system six weeks before a presidential election? Holy smokes!

If we step back, we might be able to see why Congress has been so unproductive over the past 30 years – and why Americans will undoubtedly be skeptical of whatever solution comes out over the next few days.

We don’t trust government. Republicans, Democrats, or Ron-Paulians, none of us trusts government to do what’s best, and we haven’t for some time now.

In the late 1950s, eight out of 10 Americans said they could trust government to do the right thing most of the time. That level of faith in government remained high through 1964 and provided the foundation for LBJ’s Great Society. In 1965, Johnson was able to pass the Voting Rights Act and Medicare (with the support of half the Republicans in the Senate). He created the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. The first class of children enrolled in Head Start.

That’s what a president and Congress could do when voters trusted government.

Beginning in the mid-’60s, however, there was a “virtual explosion in anti-government feelings,” wrote Seymour Martin Lipset and William Schneider. (Yep, CNN’s Bill Schneider began life as a top-notch academic.) The decline in trust was “among the largest ever recorded in opinion surveys,” one scholar wrote, and within a few years only one out of four Americans trusted government to do the right thing. Democrats lost the 1966 midterm elections, the Great Society was kaput, and Congress’ dormant period had begun.

The decline in trust in government has been permanent, and it has permanently changed the terms of national debate. Vanderbilt political scientist Marc Hetherington argues that the decline of trust put Democrats at a perpetual disadvantage. Democrats found themselves proposing government solutions to problems that not even Democrats trusted government to carry out.

(Hetherington found the perfect example of the Democrats’ dilemma: In 1964, only 41 percent of Americans wanted the federal government to integrate schools. Although sentiment for integrated schools was nearly universal by the early 1990s, support for federal intervention had dropped to 34 percent.)

As trust declined, the reach of government shortened. Americans found it harder to reach a consensus. Johnson and Bill Clinton were two poor boys from the rural South. The first planned the Great Society; 30 years later, the other declared that the “era of big government is over.” The difference, Hetherington contends, is that in the early 1960s, people trusted government in its ambitions.

By 1995, most of those answering a

Washington Post

poll said they opposed more federal spending to help the poor. Some people had an ideological objection. Most didn’t. Most people were against more Great Society-type programs because “the federal government (could) not do the job right.”

By the 1990s, Americans didn’t trust government to do much of anything at all.

Journalists have blamed this “crisis in confidence” on a “crisis in competence.” Who could expect a public to trust a government that had brought us Vietnam, Watergate, WMDs, and, now, a multibillion-dollar financial implosion? Government got what it deserved.

The trouble with that argument is that it ignores the scope of the problem. At the same time Americans lost confidence in their government, so did the English. And the Aussies, French, Italians, Japanese, and Germans. The decline in confidence wasn’t something special to the United States, a homegrown product of our politicians’ failures. It was common to all industrialized countries. The lack of trust is a function of modern prosperity.

So, we’ve muddled along, putting off problems (health care, immigration, whatever). We’ve made it through, patching together solutions and spackling over the gaps with Game Boys, wine-tastings, and the wonders of HDTV. Mostly, we’ve looked for private solutions to public problems.

Now we need government again. We can’t do without it. But we’ve forgotten what it was like to trust government to take on exactly the kind of big job it was created to do.