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Here’s a question: When was the last time at least half of Americans said the government in Washington could be trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time?
It was right after 9/11, according to the Pew Research
Center, and that was really just a blip. Before that, you’d have to go back to the
And after the 9/11 bump subsided? Since the end of the George W. Bush administration, the percentage of those trusting government all or most of the time has been hovering in the low 20s or even the high teens.
This is not a good state of affairs. Trust is a bedrock requirement of democratic governance. When it’s gone, replaced by suspicion and lack of confidence, our system cannot work.
There’s no question that over the past decades that faith has been put to the test. Americans have taken a dimmer view of the effectiveness and relevance of government the more it has been hamstrung by partisan division—and they’ve been feeling left on their own in the face of economic and cultural dislocation.
Yet despite all this, when I look around I’m reminded of just how much our government has accomplished. People often question the value of government in their lives, even while depending on a monthly Social Security check, or driving on an interstate, or attending college thanks to a student loan… You get the idea. It takes only a moment’s thought to look back—at everything from the creation of the landgrant colleges to, more recently, enabling the rapid development and approval of life-saving Covid vaccines and the continued safety provided by the world’s strongest, most advanced military—to recognize the cornerstone role our government plays in shaping American life.
So while government has its failings, it’s crucial to understand that it can be made to work effectively and fairly—and that we cannot address the challenges we face without a government that has the public’s confidence.
There may be plenty of reason to worry about government’s effectiveness, but government must also be part of the solution. Our charge as Americans is to ensure, through wise use of our votes and our voices, that it can be an effective force for meeting our challenges.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.