Americans’ lack of confidence in their governing institutions makes correcting most any political or policy problem more difficult. The voters are less open to policy-making or reform, since they don’t trust that government can actually solve the issue in front of it. Politicians tend to back away from bold initiatives and become less willing to speak out or to act, because they anticipate the dubious stance with which their proposals will be received.
Much-needed reforms — to repair the tax system, for instance, or to reshape government institutions — will be met with skepticism if not indifference. The result is that only very modest efforts can be expected, reaffirming voters’ belief that government can’t be trusted to work, and fueling political tensions that rise when problems remain unresolved.
Government relies on policy direction and resources allotted by policymakers to do its job. But it relies equally strongly on trust. It may be trite to say that “trust is the coin of the realm,” but it’s no less true. Without it, our institutions simply cannot be effective.
I don’t expect this recent poll to be seen as a wake-up call in Washington. The city seems too embroiled in its own machinations to be worried about such matters as “trust.” Yet it is also true that if members of Congress, the White House and even Supreme Court justices want Americans to treat them seriously — to listen to them, believe them, and above all believe in the institutions they serve — then they won’t treat our declining confidence in them lightly. They have to invigorate their efforts to renew Americans’ trust. Because unless they can do that, it will get harder and harder for them to do their jobs.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University Bloomington. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.