Opinion: Distrust of government is growing

August 19, 2013


By Gene A. Budig and Alan Heaps

Every poll and every survey show that there is growing mistrust of the federal government.

Consider the following.

l The Pew Research Center tells us that only 26 percent of the public trusts the government in Washington “just about always/most of the time.” Seventy three percent trust the government in Washington “some of the time/never.”  In 2002, 55 percent trusted Washington.

l The Reader’s Digest /Wagner Group compiled a list of the 100 “most trusted people in America.” It contains only one currently elected official, President Obama at No. 65.  Judge Judy ranks higher, at 28, than any Supreme Court justice. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes in at 36.

l A survey of 18- to 29-year-old undergraduates by the Institute of Politics at Harvard finds that the only one federal institution -- the military -- has a positive trust ranking. The Supreme Court, president, Congress, and federal government – from best to worst  – are distrusted. All show a decline in trust since 2010.

l The decline in trust in government is not limited to the United States. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, in 17 of the 25 countries surveyed in 2012, “government is now trusted by less than half to do what is right.” Only 12 were in this category in 2011.

Distrust, in and of itself, is not necessarily negative. It can be a powerful motivating factor that leads to vigilance, questioning, criticism and debate on important and complex issues. But there is a tipping point, a point where the mistrust becomes so great that people turn away from government and seek solutions elsewhere. In this environment democracy cannot survive.

We may, in fact, be at that tipping point because we are seeing that turning away phenomenon. A recent USA TODAY/Bipartisan Policy Center poll of a nationally representative sample of adults asked which was the best way to make major positive changes in our society: “through local, state, and federal governments” or “through community involvement?” By a whopping two-to-one margin (60 to 28 percent), those polled opted for community involvement.

Aside from rhetoric, Washington has shown little enthusiasm for restoring our trust.  But if it ever does get serious, it will require aggressive movement on three parallel paths.

One, it must break the gridlock and show us, not through words but through bold and comprehensive action, that it is ready, willing and able to make this nation a better place. This requires backing away from the paralyzing partisanship that has taken hold of our nation’s capital.

Two, it must prove that it is concerned with the many not the few. There is a perception, if not a reality, that Washington is primarily interested in serving the wealthy, the powerful, the entrenched powers.  It is viewed as the guardians of the status quo rather than progress.

Three, it must become more transparent.  Those outside the beltway believe that agendas are hidden, decisions are made in secret, through a process understood and available to only a few. 

Changes of this kind will be neither easy nor fast. Just look at the number of candidates, on both the left and the right, who we have elected on the promise to “change the way Washington does business” only to see them quickly become part of the system they once so thoroughly excoriated.

There is old adage that, in a democracy, you get the government you deserve. In the case of the United States, this is certainly true. Ultimately, we elect most of the officials, we tolerate their behavior and, in many ways, their values mirror those of the larger society.

Real change will only come about when we demand that it happen. As Cassius said:  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves…”

A final word to the wise: No country has met with greater success than the United States in using a unique form of democracy, one that relies on the art of political compromise in the governmental process. Extremists need to be herd, from the far left and the far right and every group in between, but they cannot dominate on matters of fundamental and essential importance to the nation. In so many ways, common sense has eluded us in recent times. 

— Gene Budig is past president of three major state universities, including Kansas University, and of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president at the College Board in New York City.


tomatogrower 4 years, 5 months ago

Good letter. Especially the part about the extremists.

rtwngr 4 years, 5 months ago

I agree, recognizing that the "extremist" argument cuts both ways.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

"Extremists need to be herd".

A very funny Freudian slip, I think :-)

jhawkinsf 4 years, 5 months ago

Just my opinion, but I trust the government to try to do the right thing, most of the time. I distrust their ability to achieve that goal.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

I don't.

First, the "government" is just a group of people, and politicians, at that. So, whether or not they're trustworthy is questionable for me.

Next, the "right thing" is incredibly subjective, and there are many different ideas about that.

Right now, I would agree that the government isn't working very well to achieve much, given the partisan gridlock in Congress, of course.

jayhawklawrence 4 years, 5 months ago

I think Mr. Budig's integrity and contributions to this community are known, respected, and appreciated.

I prefer reading Mr. Budig's letters far more than what we get from political pundits. At least I know I am getting an education and not indoctrination.

1southernjayhawk 4 years, 5 months ago

......and fourth, those governing need to be subject to the same laws as those being governed.

George Lippencott 4 years, 5 months ago

Help me understand this. The growing distrust of government is undermining democracy? The fact that the people seem to be inclined to address many problems through community action (self-help?) is not representative of democracy? For most of our history we did not have government limiting the size of our soft drinks! Could it be that government that has brought this down on its self by overreaching??

Larvan51 4 years, 4 months ago

Our government is overreaching in many ways, this is only one way and doesn't even scratch the surface. Our country was guaranteed a Republican Form of Government, per our Declaration of Independence but yet, our government is extremely Socialistic and has been for several generations of presidents. Our current president has been the worst so far. Our freedoms are under serious attack.

Larvan51 4 years, 4 months ago

This article should tell everyone that our government has long since forgotten who they are and what they are there for. We, The People, elected most of them to Represent us and to do our will. But, that has long since been forgotten and now, they have a bad habit of allocating powers to themselves that are in direct violation of our U.S. Constitution.
We, The People Never allocated them the power to alter or deny any of us any portion of our Inalienable Rights. To add to or take away must be done through procedure and in the end, Ratified by us, the governed. The process is called a Constitutional Convention.
And, if you haven't noticed, pay closer attention to your state's U.S. Senators and be mindful of the term "Civil Liberties". This term is being referred to more so than the term "U.S. Constitution". The term Civil Liberties was drafted and adopted in England during the year of 1215 and has been in place ever since. This is also what England had in store for our original 13 Colonies before we sent them back to England with their tails between their legs. Our U.S. Constitution was drafted by our founders and in signing our Declaration of Independence would have been an automatic death sentence for those who signed off on it. Our founders put their lives on the line so that all generations after them could live in a free country, free from oppression and suppression. Now, we have a government who is trying to return us to those years, those years when we were under the rule of the King of England. But, only this time, it is called the New World Order and we would be under the rule of the U.N. This is among the top reasons why our government has dropped so low on the popularity chart. We have in our country over 100 MILLION who are standing up to our government and telling them to back off but they are not listening. Our 1st, 2nd, 4th and 10th Amendments are being attacked on a daily basis these days and this will come to a head one day in the not so distant future. Everyone needs to remain vigilant and not be caught off guard. Take a long hard look into our current admin and you will see the writing on the wall. It is as plain as day once you begin focusing on DC's activities and talk to your state's U.S. Senators like what I have been doing. I have both of our reps mad at me now for calling them on certain issues such as with what the NSA is pulling on us now. They are looking into our lives to learn all they can about who we are. You can count on it.

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