Almost no one, it turns out, according to the latest survey results released by the highly respected NORC, an independent research arm of the University of Chicago. Across party lines, across branches of government, the numbers are falling. Among the three branches of government, the Supreme Court (whose members, I’m willing to wager, most people could not name, let alone recognize) is the most trusted branch, with 23 percent of Americans expressing a great deal of confidence, compared to 11 percent in the executive branch and 5 percent in Congress.
Ironically, in a democracy, where the military reports to civilian leadership, the military is more trusted than its commander in chief or its oversight committee.
Is this healthy for a democracy? The obvious answer is no.
How is it that “government” has become an alien institution distrusted by most Americans? Government is us, plain and simple. It’s the people we choose in a democratic process to represent and lead us. Sure, sometimes your candidate wins and sometimes she loses, but that’s the way free and fair elections work. It’s not a reason to throw the bath water out with the baby.
What the numbers clearly illustrate is that the non-democratic branches of our government — the military and the Supreme Court — are more trusted than those for which we vote. And what that suggests is that distrust of politics, of our political democracy, runs deep. Too deep.
Every night on the news, we hear of this scandal or that, of officials taking money or violating rights or placing themselves above the law. The good things done by government — the hot breakfasts for children, improvements in education, cleaner air — don’t make the news not because they’re unimportant but because everyone knows that “if it bleeds it leads.” There’s always enough bad news to crowd out the accomplishments, big and small, that do help people lead better lives.
So, yes, the media (which isn’t much liked either) plainly feeds distrust. But the media gives us what we want: If Americans wanted to hear people talk to each other rather than scream at each other, we’d have more of it. Screaming know-nothings with more cleavage than judgment aren’t the fault of the networks. That’s us, too, voting with our remotes.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the “best and the brightest” looked to a position in government to use their talents. At least among the students I’ve been teaching, that is no longer true. And how can you blame them? For far less than they make in the private sector, they can have their personal lives destroyed and their reputations covered in mud, in debt to lawyers which young people in government didn’t used to need.
I don’t care which side you’re on: This pattern of mutual selfdestruction is bad for us. It is our government we are destroying, rendering impotent, rewarding for the kind of childish bad behavior we would never tolerate in our children.
There are no easy solutions. But this much is clear. Change will not come from Washington. Civil debate won’t start there.
What’s wrong with government ultimately comes back to us. Unlike so many people in the world, we hold the levers of change in our hands — and I don’t just mean dollar bills — if only we have the will and the courage to join the fray. I hate politics, people tell me all the time. I know. So do I. I hate yelling at people with whom I just disagree. I hate looking at lists of candidates, none of whom stir my hopes. But we can’t wait for someone else to set us straight. Government is us, plain and simple, and it is our job to help restore trust, respect and dignity.