04/26/2014 08:24 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2014

The Cycle of Distrust

Americans' distrust in their national government began to decline during the Vietnam War, which led Lyndon Johnson to abandon the presidency rather than run for a second term. The decline intensified with Watergate, which forced out Richard Nixon in disgrace. Americans' trust in the federal government has never recovered. It continued to slide when Ronald Reagan named government as the problem, not the solution to problems, expanding distrust from the presidency to the bureaucracy as a whole. When politicians caught on that it was both fashionable and productive to run against government, we entered a cycle in which bashing Washington became an expected way of entering office. Then each party decided that the path to victory -- pyrrhic as it became -- was paved with magnifying the distrust not just in the Executive Branch but with any politician of the other party. This produced what they should have seen as the inevitable result that Americans now distrust both parties and Congress as a whole, as much, if not more than, the president and the bureaucracy. With partisan politics now entrenched in judicial nominations and confirmations, the Supreme Court may soon join in the expanding distrust that plagues our national politics.

None of this is to suggest that the federal government has earned or deserves our unquestioned trust. It makes plenty of mistakes, for which it is rightly criticized. But its successes almost never yield applause anywhere near in volume to the shouts at its failures. That gross imbalance is a problem. The result -- and this escapes immediate notice -- is that distrust then feeds on itself. Because we distrust government, we don't let it address the problems that concern us. Its failure to address them leads us to become more distrustful. Or, even when it tries, we seize on any mistake as another example of why government is inefficient and ineffective, and then we saddle it with so much oversight, reduced resources, and legal constraints that its failure is more likely -- "proof" that our distrust was justified in the first place.

It should not be surprising, then, to find that 54 percent of U.S. voters said in a recent Rasmussen Poll that the federal government "is a threat to individual liberty." More than a third (37 percent) said that they "fear the federal government." In an Associated Press poll, 70 percent said that they lack confidence in the government's ability "to make progress on the important problems and issues facing the country." Fifty percent said that the country's political system needs "a lot of changes," an indication that the public is getting so fed up that they are starting to see the system, not just the people who run it, as the problem.

If this were just politics as usual, we could live with it. But this self-reinforcing cycle of distrust is damaging the government's ability to do what we expect -- and we do have expectations. In the same Rasmussen Poll, 48 percent said that "there are more things that government should be doing," and 57 percent said that "we need a strong government to handle today's complex problems."

Internationally, Americans' distrust of government weakens both the attractiveness of democracy as an effective way to govern and signals that America is so polarized and contentious politically as to encourage adversaries to take advantage of our disunity. This has costs as it signals that we have neither the resolve nor the resources to lead.

Domestically, distrust of the federal government denies the political will and resources to address those issues on which federal leadership is almost essential, such as immigration, infrastructure, the debt, economic, tax and fiscal policy, energy, environmental protection, international trade, climate change, and basic research.

Distrust also warps our perspective on what our national priorities should be. However you feel about such topics as gun background checks, funding for contraceptives, net neutrality, student testing, grazing rights on federal land, and the Keystone pipeline (and there is value in discussing all of these), they are not existential threats to the republic or our way of life, however they are decided. You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise in a society where distrust is so rampant, political posturing and spending so large, and our politicians and pundits so willing to demonize each other for honest differences of opinion. The anger and distrust fueled on these lesser issues poisons the atmosphere in which more important problems need to be seriously addressed and negotiated.

On a more general level, distrust weakens the emotions of empathy and caring so critical to the social fabric of any nation. It makes cooperation more difficult and encourages the tendency to join enclaves whose walls are those of geography, ideology, income, and/or race. We decry the horrors of sectarian tensions in the Middle East and of tribal warfare in Africa, yet we build walls within our own society when we should be building bridges. Is this the message we want to send to the world?

In Philadelphia in 1787, thirteen sovereign States framed a Constitution in which they gave up some their independence for the common good. The fashioned a government which, in part, relied on distrust among its branches to ensure the protection of liberty. So distrust of the national government is part of who we are. Yet, and we need to remember this, that same Constitution is a balancing act in which trust is also essential for the national government to address common needs. The framers relied on the character and civic virtue of the people to offset the selfish aims of those same people. Effective governance is impossible when that balance is disrupted, when our anger is not offset by bonds of affection, where our self-righteousness is not offset by self-sacrifice.