By almost every conceivable measure, Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds “a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government—a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.”
In their March 2010 study, 21 percent of those surveyed were downright “angry” with the federal government, 19 percent were basically “content” with the federal government, and the roughly 56 percent in between were “frustrated” with the federal government. In fact, public trust in government is near an all-time low. Only 22 percent report a trust in government, only slightly above the 17 percent nadir.
Levels of trust in government (and its close corollary, satisfaction with the state of the nation)have risen and fallen over the last 50 years. The highest point of trust measured was nearly 78 percent in 1964, the year after President Kennedy’s assassination. Trust then fell during the Vietnamese War, continuing to a low of about 25 percent in 1980, another poor economy.
Trust in government rose over the next 10 years through the Reagan and Bush presidencies to about 65 percent in 1991 (following the first Gulf War), and then immediately fell to its lowest point—17 percent—in June 1994. It jumped to about 60 percent in October 2001 just after the 9/11 disaster and has fallen overall ever since.
Clearly, public distrust, discontent, anger and partisan rancor are the result of our uncomfortable economic circumstances. The Great Recession started in December 2007, and we now have lived through 30 months of anguish over unheard of job losses, ubiquitous housing foreclosures, numerous bank failures and banking crises, substantially diminished business activity, extended unemployment and depressed consumer confidence.
In our pain it is no wonder that we strike out at those institutions that have failed. It is right to blame government. Government must be accountable and make changes so that we can to avoid these cataclysmic socio-economic shocks in the future.
Blame goes well beyond government to the private sector for mistakes made by banks, brokerages and businesses. Certain of them skirted the law to take advantage of loopholes to add to their profits and margins. It seems that ethics and fair play were abandoned. Nowhere was that more evident than with the advent of collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, wiping out savings nationwide on the one hand while resulting in huge Wall Street bonuses to the perpetrators!
Even individuals need to take responsibility and be accountable for their own bad behavior. Too many credit cards, unaffordable home mortgages, second mortgages, poor spending habits. Even poor eating habits, too much drinking, overeating, too much sugar, too much salt, continued smoking and reckless attitudes affect our own health and well being, medically and financially, in the short term as well as long term.
We need an attitude adjustment. Rather than continuing in blame, anger and frustration, it is time to oust the demons, assert ourselves and take responsibility, make necessary changes in law and turn our attention to renewed economic growth and development. And for those less fortunate, we need to strengthen our outreach.
We must aspire to higher ethical levels and mutual respect and hold government, businesses and their leaders to higher standards as well. Unless or until we do, we cannot be confident in any recovery.
Democracy is messy—constantly a work-in-progress. Individually, we may not always get what we want, but as long as we’re moving in the right direction, we must move and celebrate that movement. In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
Some people wish we could just make things “normal” again. I’d like to think that we can make things much better than they were, especially knowing how really abnormal they were. Although it does not always seem like it, in large part we create our own future. Let’s get on with it.