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October 01, 2011 11:05 AM A matter of trust

By Steve Benen

CNN published a fairly broad series of poll results this week, but perhaps the most notable was the fact that Americans’ trust in the federal government has dropped to an all-time low.

A CNN/ORC International Poll released Wednesday morning indicates that only 15 percent of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what’s right just about always or most of the time. Last September that figure was at 25 percent. Seventy-seven percent of people questioned say they trust the federal government only some of the time, and an additional eight percent volunteer that they never trust the government to do what’s right.

In the past five years the number who say they trust the government “always” or “most of the time” was usually in the low-to-mid 20’s. Before the recession hit that number was usually in the low-to-mid 30’s, and slightly more than a decade ago, it was in the high 30’s or occasionally just over 40 percent.

At a certain level, a healthy mistrust of the government is built into the American experiment, but before Watergate, most Americans trusted the government to do the right thing most, if not all, of the time.

And now we’re down to 15%. Ouch.

Seeing these results, I couldn’t help but think about Mike Lofgren, a retired GOP staffer on Capitol Hill, who last month offered a first-hand look at what motivates policymakers from his party. As Lofgren put it, congressional Republicans aren’t just eager to undermine Democrats at all costs, they’re also intent on undermining the public’s faith in political institutions themselves.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner…. Undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy [emphasis added]

The point is nihilism for nihlism’s sake; the point is to create a dynamic in which the American mainstream simply won’t look to government for policy solutions, because the public simply won’t trust public institutions to respond effectively and responsibly.

And once Americans are convinced to turn their backs on these institutions, Republicans will find it easier to shrink government — preferably to the size where it can be “drowned in a bathtub” — and cut taxes, which is generally the ultimate goal anyway.

Congratulations, Republicans. By refusing to be responsible, refusing to compromise, and refusing to govern, it looks like your strategy is working.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • Fr33d0m on October 01, 2011 11:15 AM:

    If you're looking to shame them, save your breath.

  • c u n d gulag on October 01, 2011 11:16 AM:

    The MSM has had a large part to play here.

    Americans are getting stupider and stupider by the day. And part of that is the fault of the way news is covered in this country.

    And, now, to really add salt to the STUPID wounds, there are going to be more Teabagger's demanding that school districts cover the Constitution THEIR way. Which means with selective ignorance.

    Let's face it people. This country is just about done.

    And 2012 may just be the election that sticks a fork in us.

    Soon, we'll be "The Dominioninst Christian Corporate States of America."

    A 3rd World Banana Republic, brought to us by Banana Republicans, and an ignorant, fearful, racist, misogynistic, xenophobice, un/under/mis-informed public.

    But it'll be an AMERICANISTEST EXCEPTIONALISTEST Banana Republic - YOU BETCHA!!!

  • Danp on October 01, 2011 11:42 AM:

    I'm with cund gulag here. The MSM loves conflict. Explaining issues is not so important.

    That said, this is yet another garbage poll. Whether you are Republican or Democrat, it's hard not to conclude that government as a whole isn't working very efficiently for us. In good times, that might be something we take for granted, but in times of economic stress, I think we would all like a government that does something meaningful. It's sad that Republicans get rewarded for mere obstruction.

  • Bob M on October 01, 2011 11:51 AM:

    Nihilism ain't gonna work a criticism because only effete intellectual snobs use the word.

  • Gummo on October 01, 2011 12:02 PM:

    Our plutocracy looks back on the age of the robber barons, the Gilded Age of the 1890s, as a golden age -- the federal government was weak and capitalists were free to run roughshod over workers, the land, air and water. The economy was in a fast-swinging manic-depressive boom-bust cycle that ruined all but the filthiest of the filthy rich. Workers knew their place, and for those who didn't, private armies were available for hire to intimidate, bust heads and assassinate. It was even possible for a media mogul like Hearst to help start a war if he wanted one.

    What they're after is worse than feudalism, because in their equation there's no place for noblesse oblige; it's social darwinism of the crudest sort, and of course the odds are all in the house's favor (how's that for a mixed metaphor?).

    They've bought out the media, all three branches of the federal government and many state governments. With those in hand, they're doing everything they can to discredit the very idea of government, a social compact or even "society" itself, so they can return to the bloodsucking parasitism they dream of.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on October 01, 2011 12:03 PM:

    "Congratulations, Republicans. By refusing to be responsible, refusing to compromise, and refusing to govern, it looks like your strategy is working."

    To which they'll just say: "Mission accomplished."

    As important as it is for Obama to win in 2012, I will NEVER forgive him and his moronic advisors for being so stupid as to the motivations of the people that want to destroy him. Just fucking lame and stupid. Obama could have extincted Republicans and now the country is that last quantity of water swirling faster and faster as it gets ready to go down the drain.

  • Cap'n Phealy on October 01, 2011 12:13 PM:

    Nihilist GOP iz in ur house, wizzin' on ur rug.

  • manapp99 on October 01, 2011 12:14 PM:

    No matter who YOU blame the fact that majority of people do not trust government is bad news for Democrats. The looming fall of the euro is further bad news for Democrats and government run social programs. The Dems ARE the party of more government and are going to have a hard time selling the idea that increasing it is a good thing.

    I know that the President and the left are going to try and blame the bad things government has done on the GOP but I don't see that working. Look at the 2010 elections for a start. I know they are going to say "yes we control 2/3rds of the federal government structure but somehow the GOP is calling the shots" but that is going to be a hard sell. With the Dems controlling 2/3rds to ALL of the federal government since 2006 the public is going to be skeptical of the idea that somehow the GOP is responsible for all they don't like/trust about government.

  • Austin Cline on October 01, 2011 12:38 PM:

    It's not nihilism, or at least not *just* nihilism. Let me quote the relevant passage with an emphasis on what I think is probably key:

    "Undermining Americans’ belief in THEIR OWN institutions of SELF-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy"

    It's not merely "government" in the abstract that's being targeted, it's the people's mechanisms of self-government that are being targeted. It's not just occurring in the Congress, it's occurring in the war on voting itself.

    And what's the goal of destroying trust and confidence in self-government? Not nihilism. What is self-government? It's democracy. So let's ask again: who stands to gain when democracy loses? Who stands to gain if people no longer trust democracy or their ability to govern themselves?

    Stop and think about that for a bit. Stop to understand that the treat posed by nihilists is very different from the threat posed by those seeking to destroy democracy.

  • Mimikatz on October 01, 2011 12:52 PM:

    Obviously the idea is to discourage participation on the part of the majority so that the GOP, which is a minority party, can win elections. Then the goal is also to get people to stop paying attention son that they can use their power to help the predators continue to fleece the masses. But I wonder if it isn't also to undermine the very idea of self-government to prepare the way for authoritarian government, call it fascism, because it would be in service of the big corporations and right-wing megamillionaire ideologues like the Koch Bros.

    Things are at a pretty bad pass in the country. The Wall Street protests, which are finally getting traction, are a good sign because they represent the opposite of the usual passivity. A strong movement to move away from the big banks to community banks or credit unions is also in order. Even the NYT business page had an article on that today.

  • Domage on October 01, 2011 1:08 PM:

    Odd how the party that paints itself as the very apex of patriotism, the party that love America and all she stands for more dearly than anything . . .

    . . . is the party that despises the government of the United States, condemns the practice of democracy, wishes that free speech would just go away, and hates more than half the people who live here.

  • Perspecticus on October 01, 2011 1:12 PM:

    Not that I expect introspection from someone who agrees with the GOP's approach to government, but think for a moment what it says about the validity of a key component of the conservative belief system. In order to demonstrate how flawed and ineffective government naturally is, they have to purposefully obstruct and sabotage government. If you have to break a system to show the system is broken, then your premise is false on it's face.

    What would truly be something is if conservatism were able to refocus and guide the GOP to a new role as the party that roots out wastefulness and inefficiencies in government and actually help government help and serve the citizenry. Leave the policymaking to the Democrats; let the GOP be the vigilant party.

    Now, when i say "wastefulness and inefficiencies", I am not talking about symbolic nonsense or the endless search for programs with funny names to rail against. I am referring to true waste and inefficiency that exists within all governmental agencies at all levels. It's not the epidemic it's made out to be but it is the nature of the beast.

  • Curmudgeon on October 01, 2011 1:34 PM:

    Um, guys? No one seems to be asking what will happen if the Republicans succeed in destroying the United States government as it currently exists.

    Ultimately they see it as an opportunity for one of their own to be elevated to the office of "Savior", a tough guy to bring order out of chaos by force if necessary.

    Fear will be so rampant that the public will accept the elimination of all habeas corpus and civil liberties as long as an argument can be made that such steps are necessary to protect the population from enemies who want to hurt them.

    It happened before to the Weimar Republic. And a large percentage of the population haven't gotten a whole lot smarter since then.

    Just keep your passports current is all I'm saying. This is not going to be pretty.

  • bleh on October 01, 2011 1:54 PM:

    Whoa, I don't wanna diminish the enthusiasm for action, but let's take a deep breath here, people...

    The struggle between the wealthy and the masses is hardly new, even in the US, and this is hardly the first time the wealthy have been up on the scoreboard. In fact, I would argue that the rest of us actually have it pretty good compared to our counterparts in past ages, and I would venture that is why -- so far -- the middle class has remained apathetic.

    But don't think for a minute that, if -- probably when -- the wealthy overreach, they won't get stung hard. Look what happened to George the Very Lesser when he tried to privatize Social Security. Look at what happened to Newtie when he shut down the government for a couple of days.

    The public may not trust "government" -- whatever that is -- but they sure as hell don't like it when their services and subsidies stop.

    And make no mistake, the mouth-breathers of the Tea Party will turn like vicious jackals on their wealthy masters if they're pinched too hard -- even if they're the ones helping to turn the vise -- and the change will come fast, like a child's temper tantrum.

    If the wealthy were smart, they'd calibrate it to bleed the middle class slowly, but keep it alive -- the standard formula for a successful parasite. But they aren't smart. As Pete Peterson -- of all people -- observed, they aren't the best and the brightest; this is all they know how to do.

    Just remember, the interests of the political class are first in their own skins / popularity, and second aligned with those of the wealthy. Left alone, they will side with the wealthy. But if the masses really get mad, they'll throw the wealthy overboard.

  • Josef K on October 01, 2011 1:59 PM:

    Doesn't this constitute a legal case against the Republicans for sedition?

    If so, what would the legal penalties against them be?

  • Roddy McCorley on October 01, 2011 2:11 PM:

    This American no longer trusts government to do the right thing because government insists on including greed-addled lunatics in its processes.

  • cavecritter on October 01, 2011 2:21 PM:

    I don't recall the GOP using obstructionism so much when they were in power. Obstruction is a tactic usually used by those who are losing. Obstruction is the type of tactic used by a political party that has lost the popular vote in four of the last five presidential elections. Obstruction is a reaction to the fact that the terms of the political debate in this country have fundamentally changed. Thirty years ago we would not be having a debate over whether or not there should be a second stimulus or a tax on the wealthy. Such issues would not even have been allowed on the table. Unfortunately, our system of checks on balances makes it easy for a determined minority to slow down progress. Fortunately, those same checks and balances also mean that once fundamental, progressive change is achieved (e.g., Affordable Health Care Act, repeal of DADT) it is almost impossible to undo. This country has been around a long time and has survived much more serious threats than the Tea Party's fifteen minutes worth of political clout. Real change is measured in decades. We just need to hang in there.

  • FlipYrWhig on October 01, 2011 3:27 PM:

    @cavecritter:

    I don't recall the GOP using obstructionism so much when they were in power. Obstruction is a tactic usually used by those who are losing.

    True. And, contrariwise, the Democrats didn't use obstructionism so much when Republicans were in power, either -- because Democrats, for better or worse, care what people think of them. They fear getting ripped to pieces in the media for obstructing The Will Of The People. Republicans don't care what people think of them, don't fear media criticism, and dare us to vote them out if we don't like it.

  • zandru on October 01, 2011 3:57 PM:

    Now That We Agree Upon the Problem...

    Domage was right. We - and Democrats running for office - need to be constantly pointing out the glaring inconsistencies of the Republican position on government.

    * They're the big patriots, the "real Americans" - but they scorn any kind of collective action, particularly on a national scale

    * They're all about "the Constitution" and the "Founding Fathers" and the world-shattering magnificence of Our Democracy - and yet, they oppose it on all fronts, whether it's citizens trying to exercise their rights to vote or the Congress trying to legislate by majority rule

    * They worship the Bill of Rights, with its 2nd Amendment and 10th Amendment - but scorn the rest, such as free speech, freedom of and FROM religion, and due process for suspects

    Point being: they call themselves the "real Americans" - but if you listen to their rhetoric and look at their policies, the Republicans are against everything that defines America.

    Point it out. Remind your elected officials. No need to use the "T" word. People can figure it out.

  • Nexus6 on October 01, 2011 4:13 PM:

    I think there is a key differences between conservative parties in the US versus the rest of the world. In the rest of the world conservatives may have a different set beliefs of how government can effect positive change, but they still believe in the institution as a positive force. While in the US conservatives believe government is evil and just want to destroy the government outright. Republicans politicians have basically a nihilistic mole in the system.

  • stratplayer on October 01, 2011 6:19 PM:

    As Michael Lind has argued, right-wing wealth and property-centric "libertarianism" is ultimately incompatible with democratic governance and is much more at home in a business-friendly police state like Pinochet's Chile. The wealthy have their de facto civil liberties by virtue of their wealth and power. The only protection they need from government is protection of their assets from the rabble. I don't like slippery slope arguments as a general rule, but I can't help but see an inexorable trajectory from unchecked right-libertarianism to authoritarian government. True liberty is the enemy of the putatively "liberty-loving" right.

  • http://www.kylewhitford.com on October 01, 2011 7:03 PM:

    Half a day and a dozen random people and we can figure this out. It's not hard conceptually, just hard politically. We've got this clumsy system to work through-with and that is a problem.

  • rgfrw on October 01, 2011 7:11 PM:

    Every time we speak of the Republican Party it should be prefaced with the words: anti-government extremist group.

  • LJL on October 01, 2011 9:08 PM:

    There is nothing to add to this brilliant observation. The Republicans have set out to destroy our democracy motivated by Reagan's evil mantra "the government is not the solution, the government is the problem." Next year may be the last free election. Because after that, if the GOP win, there will be darkness. And it is beginning to look like darkness is what the largest number of Americans want.

  • exlibra on October 01, 2011 10:01 PM:

    Obama could have extincted Republicans [...] -- DisgustedWithItAll, @12:03 PM

    Couldn't have done. "Extinct" isn't a verb at all, much less a transitive one. Perhaps that's the problem...

    "ffeworn slave" I don't even want to "go there" :) But both my passports are up to date and the Repubs are one of the reasons.

  • Todd for VT House on October 01, 2011 10:27 PM:

    Nihilist GOP iz in ur house, wizzin' on ur rug.

    That rug really tied the country together, man.

  • sherifffruitfly on October 01, 2011 11:51 PM:

    (shrug) Voters brought it upon themselves, by voting for republicans and/or advocating that people stay home or not vote for Democrats.

    Electorates get, what electorates vote for.

  • mr. irony on October 02, 2011 6:46 AM:


    Number of DEM filibusters - 109th Congress: 68

    Number of GOP filibusters - 110th Congress: 139

    Number of GOP filibusters - 111th Congress: 136

    (Source: US Senate 12/23/10)

  • Tiago Silva on October 02, 2011 8:39 AM:

    Euther the USA turns in to a police-state run my plutocrats like China, or disintegrates into 4 Un-United States of America along the Mason-Dixon line, the Rockies, and the Potomac.

  • hedda Peraz on October 02, 2011 9:07 AM:

    @ tiago Silva: You say that like it is a BAD thing. . .

  • FRP on October 02, 2011 9:18 AM:

    Telephones are filibustered in Luzon , Camarina sur , Philippines . Typhoon # 19 I believe . "Pedring" at #18 , now “Quiel” # nineteen .
    The amount of true believer juice required to fail to see the change in the climate must be heroic .
    Like mercury cures for syphilis , iffin you take enough to kill you , your cured .

    Hope all is well in Beneville , USA

  • FRP on October 02, 2011 9:29 AM:

    As far as maintaining the Union , the sparks for secession are led by such luminaries that dazzle the mind and stifle the giggle .
    They give us the Sara Palins whose courage in meeting queries over her secession bravery by turning her tail and quickly run , Run Sara ! Run from you !
    Then we have inestimable pinnacle of male preening , and not so much more in , 'back down almost as quick as a Romney' , his hair was perfect , Perry !
    Perry will be doing his investigations into secession calmly and deliberately , so's the betteren he cans denies it .

    When the John Bircher's and their fren's finally agree to secede , we may finally have an unmistakeable target to end the stupidity of greed as a governing principle .

  • Ted Frier on October 02, 2011 1:15 PM:

    But the key point to keep in mind with conservative efforts to undermine faith in political institutions as a means of shrinking government is that the size of government, whether big or small, is not the issue. Who will control this country is.

    Without the institutions and apparatus of a government to execute its will, democracy as a system of politics is meaningless. By making it more likely that the American people will turn their back on government, conservatives are actively working to change the kind of political system we live in, from one controlled by consent of the governed to one controlled by financial oligarchs, church theocrats, military generals -- all of the hierarchal, paternalistic and authoritarian forms of governance that right wing movements instinctively gravitate towards.

    Liberals must stop defending "government" per se and get people to understand the public sector's connection with democratic values like freedom and liberty. There is a reason conservatives frame government as freedom and liberty-depriving, when in fact government is all that stands between the freedoms we enjoy and the demands of dictatorial elites that we do as we are told.

  • zandru on October 02, 2011 6:13 PM:

    "government is all that stands between the freedoms we enjoy and the demands of dictatorial elites"

    Exactly! Just as there can be no "free market" without a referee - preferably one that is under the control of and working for the benefit of the people as a whole, and not the highest buyer - that is, a democratic GOVERNMENT.

    You'd think this message would make sense, and even resonate, with most Americans. Maybe somebody ought to try?

  • David Martin on October 02, 2011 6:25 PM:

    Come 2013, I suppose we'll have a new Republican president with a mandate to destroy the bureaucracies combined with nihilist Republican majorities in both houses, dominated by members who will obstruct and block the Republican president with the same enthusiasm as the current one. Appointees won't be confirmed, there'll be a debt limit crisis, government shutdown crises, FAA crises, you name it.

    The late Senator Jesse Helms was perhaps the true spiritual father of today's politics.

  • DenverRight on October 02, 2011 6:53 PM:

    Joseph K: "Doesn't this constitute a legal case against the Republicans for sedition?

    If so, what would the legal penalties against them be?"

    John Adams tried that in 1798 with the Sedition Act - try to keep up. Just in case you were serious.

    Big Brother tried should be Big Brother remembered. Perhaps we should only allow ONE opinion of government, or only ONE direction for the government apparatchik.

    ...and I thought the "era of big government was over"...who was it said that?

  • Anonymous on October 02, 2011 7:07 PM:

    FlipYrWhig: "I don't recall the GOP using obstructionism so much when they were in power. Obstruction is a tactic usually used by those who are losing.

    "True. And, contrariwise, the Democrats didn't use obstructionism so much when Republicans were in power, either..."

    Well, except for those scores and scores of judicial nominations that floundered in the Senate because the Democrats were tired of seeing a President actually make appointments. It was informally called a "minority veto" when the rules changed - when 41 Senators could block a bill or a nomination without actually taking the floor for an public filibuster, the handcuffs came off. The Democrats extended that policy en banc to judicial nominees during the George W years, and are now finding out how it works when THEY are in the majority and want things passed.

    The rest of your apologetics was even worse history.

  • Sean Scallon on October 03, 2011 3:37 AM:

    "Congratulations, Republicans. By refusing to be responsible, refusing to compromise, and refusing to govern, it looks like your strategy is working."

    And throw in a bailouts of banks, failed wars, assassinations, spying on U.S. citizens, a lousy economy, deficit spending and corruption and you'll find the federal government makes the GOP argument all the much easier to believe.

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