The latest New York Times/CBS News poll had bad news for Congress, whose support is down to single digits. But it had even worse news for the Republic. Americans’ distrust of government, the pollsters found, is “at its highest level ever.”
When so many Americans believe that their representatives in Washington do not have their best interests in mind, something is desperately off-kilter. It means that Americans feel betrayed by how the political class operates.
So the question becomes what can be done to restore the people’s trust in government. May I suggest it involves more than changing policies. It means paying attention to the values that people would like to see embodied in government.
To start, they want fairness from Washington. I’ve always been impressed by the importance Americans place on fairness; they strive to be fair to those around them, and they expect government to do the same.
They also want government to be open. This is not a blanket pronouncement — where national security and defense are concerned, or where congressional negotiators need space to find common ground without being forced to posture for the cameras, there is a place for secrecy. But transparency ought to be the rule.
There is also a deep thirst for accountability in Washington. So many different people have their hands on promoting or blocking a given initiative, it can seem as though the entire political system is designed to shrug off responsibility. It is hard to respect institutions whose leaders refuse a forthright accounting of, or deny responsibility for, their failures.
Americans do not expect miracles or understate the difficulties of governing. They do not expect a single person to right the ship of state. Quite the contrary. They want a collective effort, a sense that people in government are working together to resolve their differences. Americans tolerate disagreement, but not to the point of gridlock — in the end they prefer cooperation, not confrontation; remedies, not filibusters and scorched-earth politicking.
Finally, they want honesty. Americans really do want to know the scope of the problems they confront and to make up their own minds about them. They resent politicians who paper over the complexity of the problems or toss off inadequate solutions.
Rebuilding trust in American government will require more than changes in rules or policy. It will rest on the manner in which our elected officials conduct the business of government, and their willingness to embrace fairness, openness, accountability, cooperation, competence and honesty.
Lack of trust in government is a far more serious problem than most politicians believe, one that cannot be resolved easily. The solution can only come from a patient, long-term effort to return to our fundamental values and instincts.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.