Two inter-related trends have figured prominently in bringing us to the current state of public affairs:
• The decline of trust in government to near historic lows, with only 15 percent of American saying they trust in government.
• The deep political polarization and pandering that are defining features of today's politics, and which we see played out in the current battles over impeachment and presidential authority.
These primary factors did not emerge overnight, but result from a prolonged process involving interest-group pressure and the undeniable influence of money in politics.
The decline in public trust reflects efforts of an anti-government political cohort, with government providing an easy target, a convenient whipping boy.
In addition to the three formal branches of government with their areas of authority, we can't overlook the role of the media, the "fourth branch," in bringing us to this crossroads junction. An efficient, effective and representative government requires an informed public.
It is one thing to trust in individuals and institutions grounded in reality. But it is another to see the widening of a credibility gap and willingness to accept conspiracy theories. Much of the conflict we witness today revolves around information and disinformation. When media credibility is weakened, the entire political structure suffers. The current president consistently bashes the media, which he refers to as the "enemy of the people." We have constructed an environment in which "fake news" or "alternative facts" or even "alternative realities" are believed or accepted.
We could argue about when this most recent round of political division and declining trust in our institutions originated, but it occurred over much of the last 70 years, a period of growing cynicism.
The cumulative effect of anti-government and anti-media actions and rhetoric has significant impact. Ronald Reagan was an amiable and popular president, but he built much of his political career degrading government and the role of government generally. And the last months of his tenure were marred by the Iran-Contra scandal. A few years later, Newt Gingrich sought to knock the props from under the governmental establishment, pushing a hard ideological line. Currently, Donald Trump's talk of "draining the swamp" diverts attention from serious issues and is exaggerated and misleading.
But let's be clear. Despite many able and dedicated public and military officials, there have been notable failures and missteps from within government that have contributed to a cynical view of public affairs. However, many in key positions have been political appointees rather than experienced rank-and-file public servants.
Modern-era trust and faith in government began a steady decline during the Lyndon Johnson administration and escalation of the Vietnam war, starting with the fabricated basis for the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution and continuing into the Nixon tenure. This is documented in the Pentagon Papers, the classified study of decision-making on Vietnam, leaked to the media, and revealing a long pattern of deception about the U.S. role in Vietnam. In turn, this contributed to a widening credibility gap -- the difference between official descriptions or explanations of events and public perceptions based largely on media reports.
In 1958, about three-fourths of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. But the erosion in public trust that began during the 1960s, amid the escalation of the Vietnam War, continued in the 1970s with the Watergate scandal. Trust did reach a three-decade high shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks but declined soon thereafter. Meanwhile, dollar-fueled, fact-averse attack ads became increasingly negative in our political campaigns.
Most recently, in the vein of the Pentagon Papers, we have an extensive inside-government review of the U.S. role in Afghanistan and the "war on terror" which, of course, also brought our involvement in Iraq. The Afghanistan Papers do not paint a pretty picture of U.S. actions and statements across three administrations, beginning with President George W. Bush, then Barack Obama and Donald Trump. A lengthy effort by the Washington Post produced thousands of documents reviewing the U.S. role. They were obtained through Freedom of Information requests and years of legal skirmishing.
They didn't talk about the light at the end of the tunnel, as had been the case in Vietnam, but U.S officials generally were optimistic after the American military quickly achieved success over the Taliban and Al Qaeda in 2002. But the focus then changed to Iraq, and that's when problems in Afghanistan set in, reminiscent of the quagmire in Vietnam. Small numbers of troops were left to carry the responsibility. "We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan -- we didn't know what we were doing," said a high-ranking American general. That statement echoes comments by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara after the Vietnam War.
The Pentagon Papers eroded faith in democratic government. And that erosion was later reinforced by Watergate. Misinforming the public about the status of military interventions undermines prospects for effective foreign policy.
When will we ever learn? Sadly, tragically, only scant attention was paid to the Afghanistan Papers when they were recently made public, coinciding with coverage of the impeachment battles.
An informed public is vital in a democracy. As we come to the end of another decade, we desperately need to build trust and move toward restoring faith in government. This will be difficult if we allow deceptive actions and policies to continue. Such occurrences are not confined to the federal level and can occur from Afghanistan to Arkansas. Remember that five Arkansas legislators were recently convicted of deceptively using public funds and receiving kickbacks.
We need uniters, not dividers. We need to assure that truth prevails over cynical critics or over those engaged in misleading the public.
Commentary on 12/25/2019
Print Headline: Trust vs. cynicism