In his article, Louis Menand considers the cause of Americans' loss of faith in government and, who, if anyone, is to blame. He focuses his article on discussing two books that blame two very different types of people.
In a minimum 150 word post, explain the two types of people who could be to blame and the reasons for their culpability in Americans' loss of faith. If after reading his piece, you believe one of those people is to blame, articulate which one and why.
You should look trough the article and response to the article 150 words just your thoughts, no references needed.
Are Liberals to Blame for Our Crisis of Faith in Government?
Progressives as well as conservatives have promoted suspicion of the establishment, but lack of trust is not the same as apathy.
By Louis Menand
August 9, 202
Do you trust the federal government? When voters were asked that question in December, 1958, by pollsters from a center now called the American National Election Studies, at the University of Michigan, seventy-three per cent said yes, they had confidence in the government to do the right thing either almost all the time or most of the time. Six years later, they were asked basically the same question, and seventy-seven per cent said yes.
Pollsters ask the question regularly. In a Pew survey from April, 2021, only twenty-four per cent of respondents said yes. And that represented an uptick. During Obama’s and Trump’s Presidencies, the figure was sometimes as low as seventeen per cent. Sixty years ago, an overwhelming majority of Americans said they had faith in the government. Today, an overwhelming majority say they don’t. Who is to blame?
One answer might be that no one is to blame; it’s just that circumstances have changed. In 1958, the United States was in the middle of an economic boom and was not engaged in foreign wars; for many Americans, there was domestic tranquillity. Then came the growing intensity of the civil-rights movement, the war in Vietnam, urban unrest, the women’s-liberation movement, the gay-liberation movement, Watergate, the oil embargo, runaway inflation, the hostage crisis in Iran. Americans might reasonably have felt that things had spun out of control. By March, 1980, trust in government was down to twenty-seven per cent.
Eight months later, Ronald Reagan, a man who opposed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare, which he called an attempt to impose socialism, and who wanted to make Social Security voluntary—a man who essentially ran against the New Deal and the Great Society, a.k.a. “the welfare state”—was elected President. He defeated the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, by almost ten percentage points in the popular vote. “In this present crisis,” Reagan said in his Inaugural Address, “government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
Meanwhile, government swung into action. Inflation was checked; the economy recovered. Watergate and Vietnam receded in the rearview mirror. Popular programs like Medicare and Social Security remained intact. For all his talk about reducing the size and the role of government, Reagan did not eliminate a single major program in his eight years in office.
Yet, during those eight years, the trust index never rose above forty-five per cent. And since Reagan left office, aside from intermittent spikes, including one after September 11th, it has declined steadily. In the past fourteen years, in good times and bad, the index has never exceeded thirty per cent.
The questionnaire used in the A.N.E.S. survey is designed to correct for partisanship. A typical preamble to the trust question reads, “People have different ideas about the government in Washington. These ideas don’t refer to Democrats or Republicans in particular, but just to the government in general.” Still, when there is a Democratic President Republicans tend to have less faith in “government in general,” and Democrats tend to have more. But partisanship accounts only for changes in the distribution of responses. It doesn’t explain why over all, no matter the President, the public’s level of trust in government has been dropping.
So maybe someone is to blame. It is a convenience to reviewers, although not an aid to clarity, that two recent books devoted to the subject assign responsibility to completely different perpetrators. In “ At War with Government ” (Columbia), the political scientists Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris blame the Republican Party. They say that “the intentional cultivation and weaponization of distrust represent the fundamental strategy of conservative Republican politics from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump.” The principal actors in their account are Reagan and Newt Gingrich, who was Speaker of the House during Bill Clinton’s second term as President.
In “ Public Citizens ” (Norton), the historian Paul Sabin suggests that much of the blame lies with liberal reformers. “Blaming conservatives for the end of the New Deal era is far too simplistic,” he says, explaining that the attack on the New Deal state was also driven by “an ascendant liberal public interest movement.” His principal actor is Ralph Nader . It’s a sign of how divergent these books are that Gingrich’s name does not appear anywhere in Sabin’s book, and Nader’s name does not appear in Fried and Harris’s.
Nader became a public figure in 1965, when he published “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a book about automobile safety, a subject that had interested him since he was a law student at Harvard, in the nineteen-fifties. The book got a lot of attention when it was revealed that General Motors had tapped Nader’s phone and hired a detective to follow him. He sued, and won a settlement, which he used to establish the Center for the Study of Responsive Law. In 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which empowered the federal government to set safety standards for automobiles, a matter heretofore left largely to the states. Operating with a steady stream of ambitious students from élite law schools, known as Nader’s Raiders, he then took on, among other causes, meat inspection; air and water pollution; and coal-mining, radiation, and natural-gas-pipeline regulation. Sabin credits these efforts with helping to pass the Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act (1968), the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act (1969), the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970), which created osha.
The key to all these successes, Sabin thinks, is that a new player arose in government policymaking: the public. People like Nader argued that government officials and regulatory agencies weren’t an effective check on malign business interests, because they were in bed with the industries they were supposed to regulate. There was no seat at the table for the consumer, or for the people obliged to live with air and water pollution. The solution was the nonprofit public-interest law firm, an organization independent of the government but sufficiently well funded to sue corporations and government agencies on behalf of the public. The power of groups like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club grew. By the nineteen-seventies, the environmental movement had acquired political clout. It helped that courts were willing to grant these groups legal standing.
You would think that congressional acts addressing workplace safety and pollution would have raised the level of trust in the federal government. The government was taking over from the states and looking out for people’s health and welfare. And here is where Sabin’s argument gets tricky. He says that liberal reformers assailed not only the industries responsible for pollution, unsafe working conditions, and so on but also the government agencies assigned to oversee them. The reformers essentially accused groups like the Federal Trade Commission of corruption. It was not enough for them to mobilize public opinion on behalf of laws that a Democratic Congress was more than willing to pass. They sought to expose and condemn the compromises that government agencies were making with industry.
The reformers had the effrontery of the righteous. One of the leading environmentalists in the Senate was Edmund Muskie. This wasn’t an easy position. Muskie was from Maine, a state that was dependent on the paper-mill industry. But Nader and his allies attacked Muskie for giving out “a ‘business-as-usual’ license to pollute.” At a 1970 press conference to launch a book on pollution, “Vanishing Air,” a Nader ally said that Muskie did “not deserve the credit he has been given.” Sabin thinks that rhetoric like this made the public suspicious of “government in general.”
It is certainly true that distrust has been promoted from the left as well as from the right. Although distrust is higher among Republicans than among Democrats, the antiwar and the Black Power movements, in the nineteen-sixties, were “don’t trust the government” movements. So are the “defund the police” movements of today.
But those were not the political causes of public-interest groups. Sabin, who plainly is sympathetic to these causes, thinks that the new breed of liberal reformers, with their hatred for compromise, made government look, at best, like a sclerotic and indifferent bureaucracy, and, at worst, like an enabler of irresponsible corporate practices at the expense of public health and welfare. The liberal reformers cast the federal government as an impediment to the public interest, Sabin concludes, and “the political right ran with their critique, even if that was never their desire or intention.”
That last hurdle is a little hard to clear. After all, the public-interest advocates wanted more government, not less. They wanted Congress to pass laws telling businesses what they could and could not do. They wanted national standards for clean air and clean water. Those are not things that Ronald Reagan wanted. Reagan set out to roll back liberal reforms. One of his first acts in office was to strip osha of much of its authority, and he appointed to federal agencies lawyers and lobbyists who had represented the industries those agencies were supposed to regulate. The most notorious of these appointees was probably Secretary of the Interior James Watt, a former president of an anti-environmentalist law firm called the Mountain States Legal Foundation. (An unstoppable fountain of gaffes, Watt was finally forced out after a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which he said that an Interior Department panel conformed to affirmative-action requirements because “I have a Black, I have a woman, two Jews, and a cripple. And we have talent.” After resigning, he became a lobbyist.)
Why did Republican politicians settle on distrust of the federal government as a political platform? Fried and Harris do not believe that it was primarily the result of ideological conviction—the belief, for example, that markets are more efficient than planning is, or that people are better judges of their interests than the state is. They think it was strategic, and their research suggests three reasons. The first (in order of respectability) is that the Republicans were mostly the opposition party from 1933 to 1981. And since those were years in which the federal government enacted major social programs and regulatory policies, Republicans faced a choice between being a “me too” party and a party for people who dislike social programs and government regulation.
Such people do not all share the same ideology, however, and this is the second reason that Republicans adopted anti-government rhetoric. “The anti-government message was the glue,” Fried and Harris write. It created a coalition of business owners, fiscal conservatives, anti-Communists, social conservatives, evangelicals, and libertarians, all of whom had their own reasons for distrusting “big government.” In their view, it imposed costs on industry and interfered with the operations of the market; it blew up the deficit with tax-and-spend policies; it was socialistic; it usurped moral authority from local communities, banished religion from schools and public spaces, and trod on individual liberties. Republicans, in promising to reduce the government’s interference in people’s lives, could hope to win the votes of all these groups.
But “don’t trust the government” is not exactly a galvanizing campaign slogan. Fried and Harris think that what made it speak to many voters, especially after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was the implicit suggestion that social programs effectively transfer money from whites to Blacks and other minorities. Reagan’s repeated invocations of the “welfare queen” showed how successful those appeals could be—“welfare queen” was immediately understood to mean “Black.” Fried and Harris point out that Reagan held a rally for his 1980 Presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil-rights workers had been murdered by authorities sixteen years before. That twice as many whites as Blacks live in poverty and more than half again as many whites as Blacks receive food stamps does not seem to have dented the conviction that the welfare state is taxpayer support for nonwhites—especially, in the Trumpian incarnation of this view, for nonwhite immigrants.
Much in the conservative attack on government is hypocrisy. Republicans are happy to have the state interfere in people’s lives in ways they approve of. The classic example is restricting abortion. But they also support aggressive “law and order” policies, a strong national-security state, and (often) curbs on expression and the right to protest.
And, as Fried and Harris have no trouble documenting, Republican leaders “apply their anti-government principles inconsistently depending on whether they are in power and which of the institutions of national government they control.” Republicans and the conservative media like to label Democratic acts and policies that they disapprove of “unconstitutional.” But, as the history of Supreme Court decisions and judicial ingenuity shows, the Constitution is a highly flexible instrument. When Congress is in Democratic hands, Republicans attack it as a left-wing cabal that runs roughshod over the Constitution, but when Congress is in Republican hands, as it was when Obama was President, Republicans proclaim that it must act as a check on the unconstitutional excesses of the President.
Today, the chief anti-government claim, denied by only a tiny number of Republican politicians, is that the President is illegitimate, because his party stole the election. “At War with Government” shows us that this claim is the product of a sixty-year war waged by one political party against the integrity of America’s political institutions. The stolen-election claim, after all, is only an amplified version of the birther claim against Obama, also designed to render the President illegitimate. It excuses Republicans from debating policy proposals or offering alternatives. They can be purely oppositional. Today, this is virtually the only platform the Party has left to stand on.
“Public Citizens” and “At War with Government” are scholarly books, carefully researched and patiently argued. Still, they both feel a little narrowly focussed. For one thing, they tend to underplay the extent to which the American political system was designed by people who were distrustful of government. Fried and Harris mention the anti-Federalists, the politicians who opposed ratification of the new constitution on the ground that it made the federal government so strong that it would usurp states’ rights. But a good deal of the Federalist Papers is devoted to assuring voters that the new constitution was designed to limit the powers of the national government.
Suspicion of the central government may be the norm in American political life. The relatively few periods when the federal government expanded its power and enacted sweeping legislation are all marked by unusual circumstances: the Civil War, in the eighteen-sixties; the Depression and the Second World War, in the nineteen-thirties and forties.
When Republicans (and Democrats like Bill Clinton) talk about “big government,” they are mostly alluding to another of these exceptional periods, the Lyndon Johnson Administration, of the mid-nineteen-sixties. G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot pointed out, in “ The Liberal Hour ” (2008), that Johnson came to power in a time of almost fantastic economic growth. In the nineteen-fifties, disposable personal income increased by thirty-three per cent. In the nineteen-sixties, it increased by fifty per cent. It is a lot easier to enact popular programs and redistribute the wealth when the pie keeps growing.
In the 1964 election, Johnson won more than sixty per cent of the popular vote, running against Barry Goldwater, who warned that “a government big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away.” Voters chose not to heed that warning. Democrats gained thirty-seven seats in the House and added two in the Senate, giving the Party two-thirds majorities in both chambers, the largest it had enjoyed since the Roosevelt Administration. In a survey conducted after the election, less than twelve per cent of voters gave ideology—liberalism or conservativism—as a reason for their vote.
That Congress, the eighty-ninth, was one of the most productive in American history. It passed the Voting Rights Act, the legislative capstone of the civil-rights movement. It created Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. It increased the federal minimum wage. It passed the Higher Education Act and provided federal aid to elementary and secondary education. It passed the Water Quality Act, the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act, the Highway Beautification Act, the Highway and Motor Vehicle Safety Acts, the Demonstration Cities Act, the Clean Waters Restoration Act, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, and a major amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act. Does anyone seriously think that the country is not better off for what that Congress accomplished?
Social scientists often lament the diminishment of trust, both political and social—that is, our trust in other people, which has also declined. And it is probably true that high levels of trust enable governments to get more done. But, as Fried and Harris acknowledge, lack of trust does not correlate with apathy. The contrary may be the case. If you trust government to do the right thing most of the time, you may feel that you can check out. Often, lack of trust in the government is an incentive to act. The antiwar protesters in the Vietnam period were politically energized. So were the insurrectionists of January 6th. Both manifested high levels of distrust.
Neither “Public Citizens” nor “At War with Government” is explicit about what voters actually mean when they are asked about trust. For example, how would the authors answer the trust question themselves? Highly educated people count skepticism a virtue. They typically would not report that they trust government, or any social institution, “most of the time.” What seems to make educated people uncomfortable, though, is the idea that the mass public shares this skepticism.But mass publics, too, are trained to be skeptical. Consumer economies make them that way. Commercials sell products by encouraging consumers to be skeptical of the claims of competing products. Many incorporate a wink of knowingness—“You get it that we are just trying to sell something here.” Unquestioned trust seems unthinking, naïve. Does anyone trust Facebook? You’re not supposed to trust corporate entities. So people say they don’t. Finally, as with many histories of the postwar period, these books are distinctly U.S.-centric. American historians tend to explain social and political changes by telling a story about American events. Civil rights, Vietnam, the Warren Court, Watergate: these are endowed with great explanatory power. Yet faith in government has been declining not only in America but also in the other advanced industrial democracies since the mid-nineteen-sixties. No doubt each country has its own explanation of what went wrong. But Nader and Gingrich may simply be the local faces of changes in social attitudes that are, in fact, global. It seems, as a character in Joyce’s “Ulysses” puts it, that history is to blame. ♦
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