Are the Liberals to blame for our crisis of faith in government?
Do you trust the federal government? When voters were asked this question in December 1958 by pollsters from a center now called American National Election Studies at the University of Michigan, 73% said yes, they trusted the government to do the right thing. either almost all the time or most of the time. Six years later, they were asked essentially the same question and seventy-seven percent said yes.
Pollsters regularly ask the question. In an April 2021 Pew poll, only twenty-four percent of respondents said yes. And that represented an increase. During Obama and Trump’s presidencies, the figure was sometimes as low as 17 percent. Sixty years ago, an overwhelming majority of Americans said they trusted government. Today, an overwhelming majority say no. Who is to blame?
One answer could be that no one is to blame; it’s just that the circumstances have changed. In 1958, the United States was in the midst of an economic boom and was not engaged in foreign wars; for many Americans there was domestic tranquility. Then came the increasing intensity of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the urban unrest, the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, Watergate, the oil embargo, rampant inflation, the crisis. hostages in Iran. Americans might reasonably have thought that things had gotten out of hand. By March 1980, confidence in the government had fallen to twenty-seven percent.
Eight months later, Ronald Reagan, a man who opposed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, which he called an attempt to impose socialism, and who wanted to restore social security volunteer – a man who essentially opposed the New Deal and the Great Society, aka “the welfare state”, was elected president. He beat incumbent Jimmy Carter by nearly ten percentage points in the popular vote. “In the current crisis,” Reagan said in his inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem. The government is the problem.
Meanwhile, the government has taken action. Inflation has been checked; the economy has recovered. Watergate and Vietnam stepped back in the rearview mirror. Popular programs like Medicare and Social Security have remained intact. Despite all his talk about reducing the size and role of government, Reagan did not eliminate any major programs during his eight years in office.
Yet in those eight years, the confidence index never exceeded forty-five percent. And since Reagan left office, aside from intermittent spikes, including one after 9/11, he has steadily declined. Over the past fourteen years, in good times and bad, the index has never exceeded thirty percent.
The questionnaire used in the ANES survey is designed to correct partisanship. A typical preamble to the trust question reads: “People have different ideas about the Washington government. These ideas don’t refer to Democrats or Republicans in particular, but just to government in general. Yet when there is a Democratic president, Republicans tend to have less trust in “government in general,” and Democrats tend to have more. But partisanship only accounts for changes in the distribution of responses. This does not explain why overall, regardless of the president, the level of public trust in government has declined.
So maybe someone is to reproach. It is a convenience for the critics, but not an aid to clarity, that two recent books on the subject attribute the responsibility to completely different authors. In “At War with Government” (Columbia), political scientists Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris accuse the Republican Party. They say that “the intentional cultivation and militarization of mistrust is the fundamental strategy of conservative Republican politics from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump.” The main players in their narrative are Reagan and Newt Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House during Bill Clinton’s second term as president.
In “Public Citizens” (Norton), historian Paul Sabin suggests that much of the blame lies with liberal reformers. “Blaming conservatives for the end of the New Deal era is far too simplistic,” he says, explaining that the attack on the New Deal state was also motivated by “an upward liberal public interest movement” . Its main actor is Ralph Nader. It is a sign of the divergence of these books that Gingrich’s name does not appear anywhere in Sabin’s book, and Nader’s name does not appear in Fried and Harris’s.
Nader became a public figure in 1965, when he published “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a book on auto safety, a topic he had been interested in since he was a Harvard law student in the years. fifty. The book garnered a lot of attention when it was revealed that General Motors had tapped Nader’s phone and hired a detective to follow him. He took legal action and obtained a settlement which he used to establish the Center for the Study of Reactive Law. In 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which authorized the federal government to set safety standards for automobiles, a matter until then largely left to the states. Working with a constant stream of ambitious students from elite law schools known as the Nader’s Raiders, he went on to deal with, among other things, meat inspection; air and water pollution; and the regulation of coal mines, radiation and natural gas pipelines. Sabin attributes these efforts to the passage of the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act (1968), the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act (1969), the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972), and the law on occupational safety. and the Health Act (1970), which created Osha.
The key to all of these successes, Sabin thinks, is that a new player has emerged in government policy making: the public. People like Nader argued that government officials and regulatory agencies were not effectively monitoring malicious business interests because they were in bed with the industries they were supposed to regulate. There was no place at the table for the consumer, nor for those who had to live with air and water pollution. The solution was the nonprofit public interest law firm, an organization independent of government but sufficiently well funded to sue businesses and government agencies on behalf of the public. The power of groups like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club has grown. In the 1970s, the environmental movement had acquired political weight. This has helped the courts to be willing to grant these groups legal status.
One would think that the laws of Congress dealing with occupational safety and pollution would have increased the level of trust in the federal government. The government took over from the states and looked after the health and well-being of the people. And this is where Sabin’s argument gets tricky. He says the liberal reformers attacked not only the industries responsible for pollution, unsafe working conditions, etc., but also the government agencies responsible for monitoring them. Reformers have basically accused groups like the Federal Trade Commission of corruption. It was not enough for them to mobilize public opinion in favor of laws that a Democratic Congress was more than willing to pass. They sought to expose and condemn the compromises government agencies made with industry.
The reformers had the effrontery of the righteous. One of the main Senate environmentalists was Edmund Muskie. It was not an easy position. Muskie was originally from Maine, a state dependent on the paper industry. But Nader and his allies attacked Muskie for granting “a permit to pollute as usual”. At a press conference in 1970 to launch a book on pollution, “Vanishing Air”, an ally of Nader said Muskie “did not deserve the credit he was given”. Sabin believes rhetoric like this has made the public suspicious of “government in general”.
It is certainly true that mistrust has been encouraged on the left as well as on the right. Although mistrust is higher among Republicans than among Democrats, the anti-war and Black Power movements in the 1960s were “don’t trust the government” movements. The same is true of today’s “police funding” movements.
But these were not the political causes of public interest groups. Sabin, who is clearly sympathetic to these causes, believes that the new breed of liberal reformers, with their hatred of compromise, have made the government look, at best, like a sclerotic and indifferent bureaucracy, and, at worst, a facilitator of compromise. irresponsible companies. practices to the detriment of public health and well-being. Liberal reformers presented the federal government as an obstacle to the public interest, concludes Sabin, and “the political right ran with their criticism, even though it was never their desire or intention.”