Politics of Mistrust
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The “Washington Post” series made the following points, among others: Nearly two in three Americans believe most people can’t be trusted. This mistrust is a major reason Americans have lost confidence in the federal government and virtually every other major national institution. Two thirds of those interviewed could not name their congressional representative. Without this sort of basic information, Americans “tune out politics and turn off to voting.” Women are more likely than men to be anxious about the economy and distrustful of government. Younger people are more mistrustful than older. The most cynical are 18- to 23- year-olds. To discuss the survey and the series, we turn to Richard Morin, director of polling at the “Washington Post,” Robert Blendon, a professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and the Kennedy School of Government, he co-directed the study, and David Broder, political reporter for the “Washington Post.” Welcome to all of you. Richard Morin, I was really struck with the conclusion that Americans are deeply mistrustful of each other and that that leads to the loss of cover–of confidence in the federal government and other institutions. How did you arrive at that conclusion?
RICHARD MORIN, Washington Post: Well, it’s interesting, because many of the people that we talked to said it’s something that they knew, something that they suspected, and what we basically did was confirm a national suspicion. We had been interested in what makes people angry with government for a number of years, and we’ve all been reporting it, but we’ve never gotten to the answer why. So we attempted to speak out in conversations with academics and focus groups with Americans, and finally in our national survey to try and answer the question: Why are people mistrustful, and we found out that the problem is with people, as well as with our politics.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you basically, you made the leap from the personal mistrust to the mistrust of all these other, the labor unions, government, all the other institutions too?
RICHARD MORIN: Through the survey, we were able to document that people who didn’t trust other people also didn’t trust government and didn’t trust other institutions. Also, they were far more fearful about America’s place in the world and the direction that the country was heading.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So the basis of it is this personal mistrust, that has–we’ll get to some of the causes of that in a minute.
RICHARD MORIN: It’s as if that mistrust of government is only one consequence of a far broader national phenomenon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How can you know that there’s more mistrust now? Do you have polls say from 1964 that ask the same question?
RICHARD MORIN: We did, and that was the most interesting thing about the survey is that we were able to go back to surveys asking people’s level of trust that were taken in the 60′s, and we found that nearly two out of three Americans in the mid 60′s trusted their fellow man. Now, less–about a third express a similar view–a dramatic decline in personal mistrust that parallels the decline in trust of government.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Robert Blendon, I found it surprising, remembering the huge demonstrations against government in the late 60′s and early 70′s, that there would be so much more mistrust now. How do you explain that?
ROBERT BLENDON, Harvard University: (Boston) Most people believe that government has failed in the things that they care about, the opportunities for their kids to have a better life, violent crime has gotten a lot worse, break up of families, and they actually don’t follow what goes on in government a lot, but they follow what goes on in their lives a lot, and they see government got bigger, their taxes went up, and the things that they most care about look like they either didn’t get better, or got worse. So in their mind is when people talk about new programs and solving programs nothing happens.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that if you look at the various causes for this mistrust–I know you’ve said that there’s no consensus on what–there’s no one cause that people can point to– what do you think the key cause is, though? Do you think it’s this failure of government to do the things they think should be done, or is it fear of crime?
PROF. ROBERT BLENDON: Well, I think there are two that are really dominant. One is that we really expected the economy to do a lot better, through going back to the days after World War II, when in the most real sense our kids did better than the parents did. And we see that not happening. And the second thing is, which showed up in the results of the survey, concern about violent crime, it looks like people believe that if you can’t do something about violent crime, this is sort of the gut test of what you expect from your government. Can I walk safely at night on my streets? And not only is the crime rate–and I know people will say in the last couple of years it’s gotten better, but since the last 20 years, it’s really gotten a lot worse for people, and people are, in fact, quite anxious about walking at home, and so I think the economy and crime have really paid [played] a major role of people feeling all these people in Washington, they’ve done all these things, and the things that most touch my life, the kids and the crime haven’t got better, and also we do have a fact that a number of people don’t follow very closely in the news things that have gotten better. For instance, in our survey, people don’t believe the environment’s gotten better and the quality of air has gotten better and life for seniors has gotten better, but I think people are just so discouraged about aspects of life not improving, they just don’t trust the government every time you tell ‘em you’re going to spend more money or get larger, because they haven’t seen things in their own personal experience change.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: David Broder, any other reasons for this mistrust that you want to talk about?
DAVID BRODER, Washington Post: Well, one of the other points that Bob and Richard’s research illuminated was that, that old familiar problem, the break-up of the family clearly has contributed to this. The experience of divorce is associated with distrust of government. I was fascinated to find that out.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Young people would say, if I can’t trust my parents, I can’t trust anybody.
DAVID BRODER: Exactly.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I was struck by your article–you wrote one of the articles in this series–you quoted Sen. Moynihan saying mistrust is a part of the whole American experience, the, the Founding Fathers wrote mistrust into the very Constitution, the three separate parts of government are there to make sure that, that nobody can get too much power.
DAVID BRODER: And he’s right about that, because our system of government was based on a theory that because you could not rely on the better nature, the better nature of our–the better angels of our nature–I’ll screw up the quote–you had to have offsetting powers, and that’s the whole business of our division of, of power in our, in our government. But everybody I talked to, from the President of the United States down to the newest freshman member, said that in their lifetime in public life, they had seen a significant increase in public cynicism toward government and toward politics as a profession.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So it’s in the polls, and it’s also experienced by the politicians. Tell us about the lack of knowledge of government and of politics and how the political system functions. How does that play into all this?
RICHARD MORIN: If you don’t know the rules, if you don’t know the moves, and you don’t know the players, you don’t play the game. In this case, people with less knowledge about government and politics–and these were pretty simple questions we asked them–
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Like–
RICHARD MORIN: Name your representative. We even asked at one point and a finding that most surprised me, not only could 2/3 not name their representative, half of them didn’t even know if their representative was a Republican or a Democrat. What this–what this translates into is a lack of participation, people with low levels of information don’t vote. They don’t know whom to vote for.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, even if they–aside from not knowing the name–some people didn’t know how long a term a Senator has served, who was the Vice President–so it went further than that.
RICHARD MORIN: Four out of ten didn’t know the name of the Vice President of the United States and a third couldn’t even tell us if the Vice President was a Republican or a Democrat.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Hmm, and Mr. Herndon, what do you think–Robert Blendon, I’m sorry–what do you think the consequence of this is?
PROF. ROBERT BLENDON: Well, as an educator, what most worried me was that people don’t know enough about what’s going on to give anybody in Washington any credit if they do anything right. For example, the Republicans passed the balanced budget in both Houses, most Americans don’t know it. President Clinton actually reduced the federal work force. Most people don’t know it. The financial situation of seniors in this country has improved dramatically. Most people don’t know it. As a result of this, every time we have an election campaign, people keep talking about well, they don’t do anything in Washington, and the fact of the matter is there’s a real problem. As a teacher here, if the students don’t pay enough attention, nobody gets credit for really working on these things, and the various parties have done things, and it’s very serious that if you work in Washington and accomplish anything, so many people pay no attention to the news you’ll never get any credit for it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And television comes into this, doesn’t it, David Broder, and if people don’t know, then they have to rely on sound bites on television, and there’s quite a lot of agreement in these articles, although there is disagreement on what all this comes from, that television is playing a role in this cynicism?
DAVID BRODER: The media are criticized for sound biting everything, taking it out of the context, and putting it into some form that’s very difficult for people to assimilate into their own minds and experience, criticized for a negative bias, the bad news gets much more attention than the good news, and also just a side effect that people are relying on television means that they are sitting in their home; they are not experiencing public life together. It’s one more isolating factor.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s bad news for demo–for a democratic system, isn’t it, this poll?
RICHARD MORIN: It’s tragic news, and that one of the problems is that people with less information opting out of the system basically make the system responsive to others, to voters. So minority groups, women, the poor, who choose not to vote and who have low levels of information, don’t have their views represented in the national debate.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did–Robert Blendon, was a political party favored by these results? I mean, if you’re anti-government, you’re more likely to vote for the Republicans, aren’t you?
PROF. ROBERT BLENDON: Well, you’re more likely to be concerned about a more conservative agenda. I think the two exceptions in the poll which are really in today’s Washington is the issue of the elderly and the environment. People are quite positive about wanting more government action, but in general, the disillusion with government fits a much more conservative agenda.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What can be done about this, do you think, Robert Blendon?
PROF. ROBERT BLENDON: First of all, I think it’s very important for the television to put things in context. All of us were struck by this issue of Congressman Gingrich. Everyone knows who he is. Nobody knows what his job is. All it really takes is if you mention him to have a line which describes what is the Speaker of the House. Same thing with Sen. Dole; I really think that the context when people talk about Medicare, they should tell them it’s one of the largest items in the federal budget, larger than foreign aid. Even a line on television which would put it context would really help people understand what’s going on. I think the one line show is too much and it leaves us thinking of Congressman Gingrich as a personality, not someone who actually has a job.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And that’s, in fact, one of the things that’s happened as a result of the cynicism, or the mistrust, people look at people’s–they’re judging on character because they don’t have the information to judge on issues?
DAVID BRODER: That’s I think exactly right. What I tried to do in my piece was to talk to people in government and say, how do you cope, knowing that this is the environment, and what you find is that there is a frustration among the people who are in government because of this atmosphere of cynicism that is probably as great or maybe even greater than what the voters or the public is expressing toward its politicians.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And how are they trying to counter it?
DAVID BRODER: Unsuccessfully for the most part. The device that most of them talked about is trying to get close to the people. The people who seem to be most optimistic about their ability to do that were the mayors, the people who are working at the local level. Mayor Guiliani of New York City said I went to a town meeting, I knew they were going to ask me for some stop signs, it usually takes you 2,000 years to get a stop sign installed in New York City; I brought some stop signs with me. That kind of direct action may have some impact on that particular group of people. But I was struck by the almost poignant way that both President Clinton and Sen. Dole said, we used to be able to go out and really talk with people, but now in our present positions, even that becomes a media event, it’s distilled down to a sound bite of whatever is the most controversial moment of that town meeting, and it doesn’t work anymore.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, gentlemen, thank you very much for being with us.