[TV is full of reruns these days, and sometimes I am grateful for them, for it gives me a chance to see episodes of favorite shows I had missed for some reason or another. Back in early March, I posted the following essay about the origins of America’s current crisis of trust in our government, and how it might be cured by our elected leaders. Since then, the crisis has deepened, and as I was doing some routine site maintenance, I reread the post. It is still very timely (unfortunately), and since far fewer people were visiting Ethics Alarms in March, I decided to re-post it today, with just a few minor edits. I promise not to make this a habit. Still, trust is the reason why ethics is so important in America: if there is a single post of the more than 700 I have written here since October 2009 that I would like people to read, this is it.]
Both the Pentagon shooter and the Texas I.R.S. attacker were motivated by a virulent distrust of the U.S. government, the distrust mutating into desperation and violence with the assistance of personal problems and emotional instability. We would be foolish, however, to dismiss the two as mere “wingnuts,” the current term of choice to describe political extremists who have gone around the bend. Collectively they are a vivid warning of America’s future, for the media, partisan commentators, the two political parties and our elected officials are doing their worst to convert all of us into wingnuts, and the results could be even more disastrous than the fanciful horrors the Left and the Right tell us that the other has planned for us.
Beginning in 1996, both political parties as well as their most fervid allies on the Left and the Right began using the intentional erosion of trust as a political weapon. In a democracy, which must be based on general trust in both the system of government and the common citizens who are supposed to guide it, this is the equivalent of setting fire to one’s home. The tactic is irresponsible, and it is destructive. The metaphor of cancer is much overused, but intentionally dismantling public trust in our government and public servants is a cancer, and it has metastasized into a form that threatens the continued viability of America as a productive society.
76% of Americans trusted their government in 1964, a healthy percentage for a country founded on the concept of keeping government power at bay. Vietnam and Watergate had cut the percentage by more than half when Bill Clinton was elected President, but he was following two failed and uninspiring presidencies, and there was widespread hope that the first Baby Boomer to take the White House would lead a resurgence of American spirit.
Then the bi-partisan effort to destroy trust began. The newly powerful voices of conservative talk radio, led by Rush Limbaugh, painted Clinton as an unreformed, draft-dodging hippie, plotting with his leftist wife to turn the United States into the moral trash-heap of Berkeley, circa 1967. The Clintons, meanwhile, were secretive, slippery and ruthless, using the White House as a fund-raising device, and following strategies cooked up by the thoroughly ethics and principle-free Dick Morris. While the President’s undeniable charm kept him personally popular, Clinton’s conduct dragged respect for the Presidency down to new lows, with the lampooning of his infidelities, his ease with a lie, and sexual appetites on various comedy shows exceeding any previous indignity inflicted on sitting Chief Executives. The Oklahoma City bombing briefly cooled the anti-government rhetoric coming from Newt Gingrich and talk radio, but the Monica Lewinsky scandal opened the door to more revolting conduct by both political parties. Clinton’s allies chose to defend him by denigrating past presidents. Although there was legitimate cause to impeach Clinton, it was clear that the impeachment itself was an example of a purely political vendetta by Republicans seeking the right result for illicit reasons. The Senate impeachment trial looked rigged, as indeed it was. And Mrs. Clinton raised the specter of a “conspiracy”—the anathema of trust—within the government, though she knew that the allegations of Clinton’s misconduct were true.
Clinton’s exit left a bad taste of distrust even in the mouths of his supporters, as he pardoned an unrepentant fugitive, Marc Rich, uncomfortably close to the receipt of a bountiful gift from the fugitive’s ex-wife. Now the internet was in full swing: news that once would have been buried on page 10 of the paper was on the Drudge Report and cable news. Details of bad stuff politicians used to get away with were suddenly difficult to hide. The smart thing would have been for politicians to improve their behavior.
They didn’t. They haven’t.
Old fashioned bad luck took over, as it often does. As it has every hundred years or so, the presidential election finished in a dead heat, and whenever that happens, the party that loses claims the election was “stolen.” Actually, it’s always been the Democrats on the losing end, in 1824, 1876, and 2000. (To his credit, Richard Nixon stepped up and quashed Republican intentions to do the same in 1960, which really wasn’t that close.) This time, however, the Democrats made the “stolen election” a theme to discredit the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s presidency, accusing the Supreme Court of bias, and relentlessly creating the impression that elections couldn’t be trusted. They did the same thing after the 2004 election. (The technique worked so well that some conservatives decided to similarly undermine President Obama’s claim to the Presidency by arguing that he isn’t a natural-born citizen.)
This was the time when Democratic demagogues argued that the Government was out to destroy America. Measures designed to stop terrorism were really thinly veiled efforts to take away the Bill of Rights. The wars against Iraq and Afghanistan were conspiracies to steal energy resources, sacrificing young soldiers to put cash in the pockets of Republican cronies. Fringe conspiracy theorists and genuine America-haters like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, became mainstream.
While the Democrats were picking at the scab of our trust in democracy, the Republicans were showing themselves to be thoroughly incompetent, untrustworthy and corrupt. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Talk radio was relatively silent, but scandals erupted in the Justice Department, the Defense Department, the E.P.A., the S.E.C., and the White House itself. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was openly contemptuous of fair play; Senate Leader Bill Frist pulled off a Trifecta, violating business ethics, medical ethics, and government ethics, all in one year. One House Republican was stalking young House pages for sex; (Members of both parties knew about it, but said nothing: the Republicans, to protect their own, the Democrats, to hold the information until it had the most tactical value. The welfare of the young men being harassed? Neither cared.) others openly accepted expensive favors from lobbyists.
All of this occurred in an American society where trust in all the other institutions and sectors were evaporating too. Baseball’s new home run records turned out to be the work of cheats, using illegal performance-enhancing drugs. The Super Bowl champion’s coach was revealed as a cheater; an NBA referee was shaving points. Catholic Church officials knowingly allowed sexual predators to continue molesting trusting children. The criminal justice system’s inequities were on full display, with a high-priced legal team getting celebrity killer O.J. Simpson an acquittal on evidence that would have convicted a poorer man. Journalistic ethics went into complete free-fall. The fabricated stories of Jayson Blair, a New York Times reporter, were just the beginning of a long, sickening decline. Dan Rather and “60 Minutes” were caught using a forged letter in an effort to influence the 2004 presidential election. The Associated Press, CNN and the major networks responded to the openly conservative slant of Fox News by becoming increasingly and often embarrassingly biased. Symbolizing it all was the rise of “reality” shows on TV, in which supposedly unrehearsed drama involving “real people” was revealed to be scripted, manipulated and fake.
And of course, there was Enron…and Tyco…and Worldcom…AIG…Goldman Sachs…and the outrageous failure of government regulators to detect and stop the culprits in the housing and investment market meltdowns. Bernie Madoff beggared widows and charities as the S.E.C. looked the other way. The government lawyer who gave him a pass married Madoff’s daughter.
Who could we trust? Nobody. Nowhere.
At such nadirs of spirit and belief, American has been historically fortunate. A figure always appears, it seems, to restore trust and optimism. George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, F.D.R., J.F.K., Ronald Reagan. For most of America, Barack Obama fit the bill. The bi-partisan forces of distrust, however, were stronger and more reckless than ever, and President Obama has not shown the experience or judgment necessary to overcome them. In place of the cynical and unethical GOP pols are the unethical and arrogant Democratic pols. The governors of Alaska, South Carolina, Illinois, New Jersey and now two governors of New York failed to meet minimum ethical standards, and were engulfed in scandal. Meanwhile, as deficits soar and unemployment rises, key members of Congress have been exposed as corrupt, while the House Ethics Committee issued an official green light for bribery. The Secretary of the Treasury, overseeing the I.R.S., had ducked his taxes. The Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax legislation, has hidden his true income. In a show of arrogance unmatched since the days of Spiro Agnew, Democratic leaders have dismissed public objections to proposed policies as manufactured or ignorant. Republican leaders, for their part, have chosen to ride unfocused public displeasure by simply opposing everything.
The torch for all this gasoline is being provided by the media, cable news, columnists and talk radio, who take cues from each other to escalate their rhetoric of daily hate. On the Right, popular demagogues like Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity and Limbaugh argue that the current government, including Obama and the Democrats, hate America. Comparisons with Nazi Germany are common. They plant doubts about the President’s nationality, religion, and loyalty to his country. The Left doesn’t want to control guns to save lives; it wants to control guns so it can enslave the public. The Left doesn’t want to bolster the economy, it wants to destroy it, so it can justify a socialist takeover. On the Left, commentators like Keith Olbermann, Frank Rich, E.J. Dionne, Ed Schultz and Paul Krugman routinely deride any opposition to even the most dubious Democratic policies as racist, anti-feminist, homophobic, pathological and stupid, and they continue to so even in the wake of egregious Democratic blunders, lies and corruption. Their credibility as objective observers is nil.
President Obama’s allies, both in the media and in Congress, are thoroughly untrustworthy, and they have managed to turn the hope that greeted his election into bitter disappointment for much of the public. The health care bill showed the legislative process at its ugliest, with what looked like million dollar bribes to Senators and secret deals with health care industries, and two monstrous bills that nobody even pretended to have read. The President’s appointees have been, as a group, feckless and incompetent. Conservative demagogues claiming that a combination of socialist fanaticism and ineptitude will send the U.S. down the path of Greece are finding traction. People are frightened. People are angry. It is almost impossible to find a moderate voice.
All of this is dangerous to the continued viability of the United States. Today, depressed by disillusionment, scandals, and continuing fear-mongering bt both Left and Right, public trust of the government stands at less than 20%. The nation’s leaders are going to have to ask the public to make sacrifices to begin paying for bail-outs, job programs, infrastructure repair, national defense, and conceivably health care and global warming measures. Once the public begins to believe, as talk radio and conservative pundits would have them believe when Democrats are in power, and as liberal blogs and cable TV commentators will insist while Republicans are in power, that their own government is opposed to the public good, and is dedicated to destroying American principles, private property and freedom, the social contract will begin to unravel. They may believe that now; certainly many do. There is even a Republican Senate candidate in Nevada who has endorsed armed revolution…and she could win.
After the shooting at the Pentagon, a dear friend who has spent a lifetime in public service wrote,
“This can’t continue – no one with any sense of self-preservation will seek a career in government service. My friends are so unbelievably depressed. They put their lives on the line for their country, just like the military. Two people I know died in the past 2 months, one in Haiti and one in Afghanistan. And now we are attacked at home, too. Texas, Pentagon.”
This is correct. It can’t continue, or if it does, everything is at risk. If it is going to stop, the measures must be as bi-partisan as the last fifteen years worth of irresponsible conduct. They must include a commitment to basic ethical values:
- RESPECT. Every public servant, every government worker and every member of the military deserves respect and the presumption of good will. There has never, in the history of the nation, been a President of the United States who was not a patriot or completely dedicated to doing the best job he could for the nation. Suggestions to the contrary should stop, and should be condemned when they arise.
- FAIRNESS: Politics does not preclude civility and fairness. The culture of total war, which is now in full, toxic bloom, must end. Columnists, talk radio hosts and pundits must stop presuming the worst and spreading rumor and suspicion. Responsible readers, listeners and viewers must reject those who continue to deal in insults and personal attacks.
- CANDOR and OPENNESS: President Obama correctly pledged to stand for these, and has not met his pledge. He must. Thanks to the internet and its many applications, openness is no longer an option, it is a necessity. Back room deals will be revealed today; they no longer make sense. Now they only erode trust.
- COMPETENCE: The world is more complicated and dangerous than ever, and the sense that we are being led by tyros and fools is fatal to trust. When officials show they are not capable of doing their jobs well, they ought to be fired or resign, no matter how many loyalty chits they have accumulated.
- ACCOUNTABILITY: Closely related to competence, accountability is essential. Unethical politicians must not be protected or tolerated by party leaders, nor re-elected by the public. nor supported by friendly media.
- HONESTY: Public officials must not shrug off lies as business as usual. They should try to be clear and truthful, and quickly apologize when they mislead. Interviewers and reporters should be trained to call guests on obvious attempts at “spin” or avoiding direct answers, and there should be consequences for guests who continue to be deceitful.
- INTEGRITY…among journalists, among elected officials. The public must insist on it.
- GRATITUDE: We owe thanks and respect to the many, many individuals who labor for the government honestly, diligently, effectively and courageously. We must not allow demagogues, in their unprincipled quest for attention and power, to denigrate the work of these crucial citizens.
All of this is not an option; it is a necessity. The heavy work of rebuilding trust, ironically, rests not with those who have proven themselves untrustworthy, or those who have cynically damaged trust for their own purposes. It rests with us, the trusting. We protect and ensure trust by insisting on trustworthy conduct and rejecting efforts to see trustworthy conduct as anything less. Laws won’t rebuild trust, and regulations cannot either. People build trust.
And we better get busy at it, because supplies are running out.