Of all the numbers thrown at us over the course of last year, one stands out for me. I hope we can avoid repeating it this year.
That number is 12. It’s the percentage of Americans in a December Quinnipiac poll who said they trust the government in Washington to do what is right most or all of the time. It’s a depressingly small number — especially compared to the 41 percent who say they “hardly ever” trust the government. This meshes with recent polls that echo a bleak truth: Trust in government is at historically low levels.
That’s not all, though. Americans are feeling vulnerable and highly distrustful of both government and private-sector prying. More worrisome, a few months ago an AP poll found fewer than a third of Americans trust one another. The poll’s message is clear: Our society is in the midst of a crisis in trust.
This might seem like a touchy-feely concern, but it’s not. Trust is essential to our political system and our way of life. The belief people and institutions will do what they say they will do is the coin of the realm in our society. It is what allows people to work together — in their daily interactions with others and in their communities, legislatures and Congress. Negotiation, compromise, collegiality and the mechanisms our complex and diverse society depends on are impossible without trust. Trust is one of the medley of virtues that have allowed our institutions to develop and prosper, along with honesty, competence, responsibility and civility.
A breakdown in trust between Congress and the executive branch invariably brings problems: the turmoil of the Vietnam War era, Watergate, Iran-Contra, our current budget travails. A society-wide lack of trust imposes real costs. It makes the drafting of laws and their implementation extremely difficult: Government becomes more expensive because it requires more emphasis on regulations and enforcement.