Here’s a question: When was the last time at least half of Americans said the government in Washington, D.C. could be trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time?
It was right after 9/11, according to the Pew Research Center, and that was really just a blip. Before that, you’d have to go back to the 1960s.
And after the 9/11 bump subsided? You won’t be surprised to hear that ever since the end of the George W. Bush administration, the percentage of those trusting government all or most of the time has been hovering in the low 20s or even the high teens.
“When many Americans think of the government’s spending priorities, they imagine that outsized proportions of taxpayer dollars go to others...”
This is not a good state of affairs. Trust is a bedrock requirement of democratic governance. When it’s gone, replaced by suspicion and lack of confidence, our system cannot work. For representative democracy to function as it should, the public officials, politicians, and policymakers who act in our name have to have the support of ordinary people — who can trust that our representatives will level with us without half-truths and that government can efficiently and effectively deliver the goods, services, and policy impact we expect.
There’s no question that over the past decades — starting with the Vietnam War and Watergate — that faith has been put to the test. In many respects, Americans have taken a dimmer view of the effectiveness and relevance of government the more it has been hamstrung by partisan division just as they’ve been feeling left to their own in the face of economic and cultural dislocation. Globalization, the changes wrought by technology, skyrocketing income inequality, slow wage growth for working families, concern about hot-button social issues — all of this has ratcheted up a sense of loss of control. And that was before the pandemic.
Yet despite all this, when I look around, I’m reminded of just how much our government has accomplished — and how thoroughly it’s taken for granted by many Americans. People often question the value of government in their lives, even while depending on a monthly Social Security check, driving on an interstate highway, attending college thanks to a student loan, relying on the overall safety of our food and medications, or escaping to a national park for vacation... You get the idea.
When many Americans think of the government’s spending priorities, they imagine that outsized proportions of taxpayer dollars go to others — to foreign aid, say, or welfare. In fact, the biggest chunk of federal spending has traditionally gone to Social Security, Medicare, and other programs for elderly Americans, surpassed recently only by the money for economic stimulus and family income support that kept the economy from crashing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’m not going to bore you with a long list of things the federal government has done well. But I do want to say that it takes only a moment’s thought to look back — at everything from the creation of the land-grant colleges, to establishing the rules by which American businesses operate, to Medicare, to the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s, to more recently, the Affordable Care Act, and to the rapid development and approval of life-saving COVID vaccines — to recognize the cornerstone role our government plays in shaping American life.
So yes, while government has its failings, it’s also crucial to understand that it can be made to work effectively and fairly — and that we cannot address many of the challenges we face as a nation without a government that has the public’s confidence. The character, resourcefulness, and resilience of the American people have always been key to the nation’s success, but so have key government initiatives that marshal our strengths. They range from good education to basic scientific and medical research to the physical and legal infrastructure that undergird our economy.
In the end, there may be plenty of reasons to worry about government’s effectiveness, but government must also be part of the solution. Our charge as Americans is to ensure, through wise use of our votes and our voices, that it can be an effective force for meeting our challenges.
Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.