Friday, February 16, 2018

We Trust the Government We Don’t Trust

American’s trust in government has been in decline since the Kennedy/Johnson administration according to Pew Research.  Yet we seem to ask more and more of it.

Trust is more likely to occur in local communities because we tend to trust information we take from direct experience.  We relax a bit when dealing with people we know or with people whose reciprocal expectations match our own.  In countries with small, relatively homogeneous populations, government can successfully play a larger role in daily life.  The Scandinavian countries, so often cited as a model by liberals, are good examples.  Each has a population smaller than New York State that is over 90% native born.

The US, on the other hand, has a population that includes over 40 million immigrants, closing in on 15% of the total.  If we add first generation Americans, we have about a quarter of the population whose reciprocal expectations are not aligned with more established citizens.  The last time we found ourselves in a similar demographic mix was shortly after my grandparents immigrated here in the 1910’s and 20’s (from what was then a s***hole country).  What followed was a backlash and, in 1924, Congressional legislation to limit immigration, the remnants of which form the basis of policy today.

The social mechanisms that have enabled us to assimilate have been left behind as technology – from ATM’s, smart gas pumps, and self-checkout at Wegmans to video games and social media – replaces person-to-person social interaction.  People from different walks of life simply don’t talk with one another as we once did. 

In parallel, we have observed a breakdown of trust in institutions.  We stopped trusting our government when government stopped being trustworthy -- during the Vietnam War and Watergate.  We stopped respecting social institutions -- political parties, organized religion, national media -- when they stopped meeting our needs.  And, we stopped trusting people with different political beliefs when their politics became more extreme. 

So, at a time when we need to learn to engage our neighbors, become more welcoming to immigrants and litigate our differences locally, the social fabric necessary to our success has been torn.  At a time when more of our resources should be directed within our communities, Washington is in a pitched battle over how our money should be distributed.

And, let’s not overlook how money affects this paradigm.  The lion’s share of our taxes is not collected by our local communities or state government but rather by Washington.  It takes money to administer laws and enforce them.  So, the rules made in Washington affect us more than those made locally.  We can see the impact in our schools and our transportation infrastructure.  State and local governments can’t do much without federal support. 

So, the cycle reinforces itself.  More money goes to Washington; more of the laws that affect our local communities are made there; and, we ask more of Washington than of local governments that could be more responsive to our needs.  By paying taxes and demanding programs of our Congressional representatives, by asking them to legislate right and wrong, we express our trust in the federal government implicitly.

Isn’t it ironic?


1 comment:

  1. Interesting perspective that technology makes assimilation harder because it makes it easier to get by without personal interaction. Had not thought about it like that. Thanks for sharing, John!