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What Price a Crisis of Confidence?

Trust: Since the 1960s, people's confidence in government has dropped, with possible long-term consequences.

November 04, 1998|JOSEPH S. NYE Jr. | Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a co-author of "Why People Don't Trust Government" (Harvard University Press, 1997) and dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government

As Congress debates special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's report, should it also charge President Clinton with destroying public trust? He has certainly added fuel to the fire, but the flames have been burning for decades. Loss of confidence in government has much deeper roots than this president's transgressions.

In 1964, for example, three-quarters of the American public said they had a great deal of confidence in the federal government. By the early 1970s, only a quarter did. Clearly, Lyndon Johnson's and Richard Nixon's lies over Vietnam and Watergate helped to precipitate mistrust, but why does the problem persist? And why did confidence rebound to 44% when Ronald Reagan came into office only to drop during his second term to around 25%, where it has since languished?

Lying and corruption are often cited as the cause of mistrust. However, many observers doubt that corrupt behavior in Washington has increased. Some even see less personal venality than in the past. What has increased is media obsession with scandal and public belief that politicians have become more corrupt. Certainly there has been enough dishonest behavior to fuel this belief, but it is difficult to make the case that increased corruption has caused increased mistrust.

Government is not alone. The same polls show loss of confidence in many major institutions, including corporations, universities, medicine and the media. Part of the problem is cultural--a long-term decline of trust in authority and institutions that occurs as societies become richer and the balance between individual and community shifts toward greater individualism. We sometimes refer to this as the "rights revolution." Divorce, for example, has increased in almost all advanced societies. On the one hand, divorce represents a liberating trend for those trapped in unhappy marriages. On the other hand, it is destructive of one of society's most basic institutions, the family. These cultural trends accelerated with the youth revolts of the 1960s, which challenged institutions not only in the United States but also in Europe and Japan. We are still living with the legacy.

Another part of the problem is political. Old coalitions are crumbling, and politicians now run against government, using marketing consultants and advertisements to appeal over the heads of the political parties directly to the public. Party institutions are less effective, and negative TV ads and the costs of broadcast time enhance the sense of distance between political leaders and the public. Negative ads and scandal coverage reinforce the popular culture of bad government. In business terms, we are now paying the price for several decades of "demarketing" government.

But a major puzzle is the gap between peoples' experience and their beliefs. When asked whether they have had a bad experience with the federal bureaucracy, two-thirds said no but nonetheless reported negative views. While polls show low ratings for Congress, they also show higher rating for the local representative. Although there is broad criticism of public schools, people express higher satisfaction with their local schools. If mistrust does not derive from personal experience, then explanations must lie in generalized beliefs. When asked where they get these views, 70% reply the media, and that is another cause of the problem.

Since the 1960s, the media have changed not in the direction of partisanship but in challenging institutions and authority. Empirical studies show that both print journalism and TV news have become more negative, more centered on individual journalists' personalities and more focused on conflict rather than substance, not just in the U.S. but also in Britain, Italy and Sweden. For better and worse, the press has become an unaccountable part of the political process. It is hard to believe that three-quarters of the American public would have expressed such high confidence in government in the early 1960s if John Kennedy's private life had been subject to the same scrutiny by the press (and Kenneth Starr) as has Bill Clinton's.

Does the loss of trust in government matter? Perhaps not. We have a long Jeffersonian tradition that warns us not to be too trusting of government. And polls do not show any lowering of desire for a democratic form of government or national patriotism. Yet over the long run, steady devaluation of government and politics could affect the quality of our democracy if people become less willing to comply voluntarily with laws and bright young people become less willing to run for office or enter government service. Without these resources, government cannot perform its necessary tasks, and the cumulative downward spiral could erode support for democracy as a form of governance. We are a long way from such dire outcomes, but we need to look beyond the current crisis to the larger causes of our mistrust.

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