Reading a poll is not a simple thing. Nowhere is that so true as with the American people’s so-called collapse of faith in their institutions.
When it comes to trust, all institutions are not created equal.
Through the years faith in some has remained strong. The June Gallup survey found 82% of respondents reporting a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. Sixty-seven percent said the same thing about small business. It is a subtle distinction, but both are seen as extensions of the American community rather than as part of the American institutional apparatus. Millions of Americans have been directly involved in both, through current service or as veterans and as small business owners or employees. And both are seen as delivering on their promises. So the storms of opinion have not buffeted them.
Meanwhile some institutions have lost trust, because they have behaved badly. Not all churches are the Catholic Church, of course, but during the last few years many have surely thought of the Catholic Church when answering questions about their trust in religious institutions. In recent months Rome and the Pope in particular have become more forthcoming and sensitive to the crisis in the priesthood. But nothing is so hard to repair as trust broken. It will take the Catholic Church years to recover.
But there is a third group of institutions that for decades have risen and fallen together in public esteem and are now at all-time lows: government, big business and the media. And, given that pattern, it is very likely that rises and falls in trust of government have been largely responsible for trust in the other two.
The Pew Research Center has charted survey results for confidence in the government from 1958. Under Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, over 70% of Americans polled said they trusted their government. And why not? Only a few years before the U.S. had won history’s greatest war against one of the modern world’s most hideous tyrants. Soldiers who had grown up in the Depression returned to the most prosperous nation in the world.
Perhaps most importantly, a broad national consensus ruled our politics and both our major political parties. Communism was bad and had to be stopped, without a prolonged shooting war. Free enterprise and individual responsibility were good and had to be given space, up to a point.
But in pushing through the Great Society and escalating involvement in Vietnam, Johnson violated that consensus. Trust in government began a long slide, pulling business and the media along, and didn’t end until Ronald Reagan came to office.
In essence, Reagan returned to the old consensus. Together with George H.W. Bush after him, communism was stopped with almost no shooting. With lower taxes and reduced regulation, Reagan gave more room to free enterprise. And with cuts in domestic social spending, he reasserted the role of individual responsibility.
George H.W. Bush moved away from the domestic part of the consensus, bringing in higher taxes, more regulation and increased social spending. Trust in government tumbled again. Then, once a Republican Congress forced him, Bill Clinton returned to the consensus, cutting taxes, controlling spending, reforming welfare and producing surpluses. Trust in government returned to Reagan-era levels.
George W. Bush began another move away from the consensus, with a long shooting war, a new entitlement, rising spending, ballooning deficits. Trust fell. Despite his whining about the Bush years, Barack Obama has matched Bush’s fiscal bet and upped him so much that today more than half the nation perceives Obama as a socialist. Meanwhile, cutting spending for all programs (even if those being polled are told the cuts will hurt them personally) has become strongly popular. And we may be looking at another shooting war without a victory. Since Obama took office, trust has fallen further.
Excuse me. Does anyone see a pattern here?
It is not too much to say that the Washington-based political establishment has misunderstood at least the last three presidential elections. The 2000 outcome was for continuity with course correction, not major change. The 2004 election went to the candidate who was more faithful to that agenda, with slack cut him because of 9/11. In 2006 patience ran out with the GOP’s profligacy, and in 2008 this same electoral majority wanted to teach the GOP a lesson it wouldn’t forget.
Reporters and commentators have focused on the Tea Party. But you can’t put together a winning campaign with just the people who have shown up at Tea Party rallies. Impressive as those gatherings have been, when it comes to the numbers needed to prevail at the ballot box, they qualified as little more than media events. The key to their power is that they reflect a much broader and enduring body of opinion.
So here is a simple, essential fact: For at least a decade the swing vote in American politics has been driven by alarm at the growth of federal spending and all that goes with it. More likely to cast ballots for Republicans, these voters abandoned the GOP in 2006 and 2008 out of revulsion at the run-ups in spending and deficits during the Bush years. They would probably have stuck with a Democratic president who was more or less like Clinton after the 1994 elections–still liberal but with restraint, delivering budget surpluses and emphasizing personal responsibility. But that president is clearly not Obama.
How do we restore trust in our institutions? We start by restoring our government to the enduring consensus. Even in the aftermath of the financial meltdown, the fall of confidence in our institutions is not about big business or big media, which actually don’t look so big anymore. It is about government and a political class out of touch with the American people.