In Defense of Distrust in Government

March 17, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the DC Examiner on March 17, 2009.

President Barack Obama declared in his inaugural address that “our patchwork heritage is a strength” because people of all backgrounds and creeds had come together to make America great. But there was one group, Obama suggested, that wasn’t quite welcome in the American family: the “cynics,” those miserable killjoys who dare to “question the scale of [the federal government’s] ambitions.”

There, Obama echoed his 2008 opponent, John McCain, who has repeatedly warned that there’s a specter haunting our country, in the form of a “pervasive public cynicism” toward government.

“Cynicism” is a scare word, meant to discredit those who cast a skeptical eye on politicians’ grand designs. But Obama and McCain are right that distrust of government is on the rise.

For five decades, researchers at the University of Michigan have asked Americans “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?”

In the early 1960s, three‐​quarters of respondents answered “just about always” or “most of the time.” After Vietnam and Watergate, Americans weren’t quite so gullible, and the trust numbers never again reached their Kennedy/​Johnson‐​era peak.

This month, Michigan’s National Election Studies group released new survey data that reveals another decline: Only some 30 percent of Americans trust the feds most of the time or always, which is down sharply from trust’s post‐​9/​11 high.

When political trust declines, the D.C. cognoscenti typically wring their hands and hold earnest conferences at the Brookings Institution, exploring how best to restore the people’s faith in their rulers.

But, as usual, the political elites have it precisely backwards. Declining trust in government is a good thing, something that Americans of every political stripe ought to celebrate.

Conservatives should welcome increasing skepticism toward federal power, because that skepticism makes ambitious federal programs much less likely to pass. Vanderbilt University’s Marc Hetherington, one of America’s leading scholars on the subject, writes that declining faith in the feds makes “another Great Society or New Frontier… unlikely in a post‐​Cold War world.”

Professor Hetherington leans left, so he’s not happy that the data has driven him to that conclusion. But even though increased political distrust presents major challenges for the Democratic agenda, liberals should recognize that there’s a silver lining in the growing cloud of skepticism.

When Americans trust their government too readily, they tend to support policies that most liberals oppose. The post‐​9/​11 period led to the greatest rise in political trust since Watergate, which helped George W. Bush make the case for what turned out to be a disastrous war in Iraq.

Professor Hetherington’s research shows that declining trust decreases support for foreign‐​policy adventurism, and other scholars have shown that it also makes the public less likely to endorse restrictions on civil liberties.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, high levels of political trust served as a presidential enabler, allowing unrestrained spying at home and unnecessary wars abroad. In 1971, just as Americans were beginning to wake up to the dangers of excessive trust in the federal government, the Watergate tapes captured an interesting exchange between Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman.

The two were debating what to do about the impending release of the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War that documented a host of government lies. Haldeman warned Nixon that the release would undermine the public’s belief in “the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America,” and reveal that “people do things the President wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the President can be wrong.”

No American today could pronounce that phrase, “the implicit infallibility of presidents,” without a smirk, and we should be very glad about that. Our Founding Fathers knew that no man was infallible.

With that insight in mind, they designed a constitution that would prevent any one man, or body of men, from seizing unchecked power. Today’s politicians and pundits may lament rising political distrust, but when the voters refuse to take claims of federal benevolence on faith, they’re honoring their forefathers and fulfilling their duty as citizens.

What, after all, could be more American than distrust of government?

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