The Washington soap opera continues — intra party political brawling, back and forth taunts up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, and screams for ideological purity from special interest groups are the order of the day. Tragedies, crises, and dangers — abroad and at home — are not problems to be solved but weapons to be used to bludgeon political opponents. Caught in the middle are the American people who are viewed by too many inside the Washington Beltway not as citizens to be served but as mere pawns to be manipulated in attempts to hold or gain influence and power.
In response, is it any wonder that in this political season many Americans are being drawn to questionable prophets on the left and right, who in the past would have been laughed off the presidential stage if they had had the audacity to claim the mantle of national political leadership?
A look back to how we got here may be instructive. The respected Pew Research Center has tracked public trust and confidence in our federal government since 1958. Public trust in Washington peaked in 1964 at 77%. Even through the tumultuous 1960’s and early 70’s with the upheavals caused by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle public confidence stayed above 50%. It was not until the combined impact of the Watergate era, the economic turmoil of the mid and late 1970’s, and the taking of American hostages in Iran that a sharp sustained slide in public trust occurred, bottoming out at 25% in the spring of 1980.
Interestingly but not surprisingly, public trust rose during two periods of divided government — in the 1980’s under President Reagan and a Democratic controlled House, and in the second half of the 1990’s with President Clinton and a Republican Congress. Both periods saw more than just steady economic growth. During the Reagan years the two political parties managed to come together to fix social security, strengthen our nation’s defenses, and helped put the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union. During the last six years of the Clinton Administration, bi-partisan efforts resulted in a balanced budget and welfare reform.
After a brief spike following 9/11, public trust, however, has steadily declined settling into an abysmal level between the low 20’s and high teens over the past four years – and there is little wonder why.
On the international stage, instead of a Super Power we appear to be a deer stuck in the headlights. ISIS still holds its grip over major parts of Syria and Iraq, desperate refugees are flooding into Europe, the Taliban is surging in Afghanistan, Russia is running roughshod over its immediate neighbors and propping up a savage dictator in Syria, radical Islamic groups and lone wolfs are striking in Africa, Europe, Asia, and America, the European Union is on the brink of being shattered, China’s hacking attacks on foreign businesses and governments go unchecked, a madman in North Korea keeps rattling his nuclear saber, and a flawed Iran nuclear deal has folks uneasy both in our country and among many of our allies in the Middle East. In short, our friends do not appear to trust us and our adversaries do not fear us.
At home, dysfunction and division reign. Desperately needed reforms to our immigration system remain elusive, the national debt steadily rises, no one dares speak of addressing the spiraling costs of entitlement programs, the federal government with lurching starts and stops struggles just to keep its doors open, racial tension is rising, mistrust in our police is epidemic, our infrastructure is crumbling, and our middle and working classes feel under siege. Meanwhile, a steady drum beat from social media, bloggers, radio commentators, and cable television try to convince us that anyone we disagree with on hot button issues such as same sex marriage, abortion, religious freedom, climate change, and the right response to gun related violence is not just mistaken but immoral and corrupt.
This sorry state, however, need not be the new normal. That which unites us as Americans is greater than the divisions certain agents of discord cynically try to use as a wedge to divide us. We have a well-tested, seasoned and strong military despite recent unwise arbitrary cutbacks. Our economy with all of its faults is still the most stable in the world. Our higher education institutions are still the destination point for the best and brightest, and people around the world still stand in line to come to our country.
Yes, there are special interests, narcissistic self promoters, and bloody fighting within and between political parties acting as obstacles. That has always been true and always will be. Leadership, however, means knowing how to go around or through these impediments. Even when faced with divided government political leaders as partisan and ideological as Ronald Reagan, Tip O’Neil, Bill Clinton, and Newt Gingrich managed to cut through the Washington inertia.
These past leaders were not supermen but simply individuals who recognized the compelling urgency of the present to act. There will rarely be unanimity on a critical issue but stepping up, rolling up sleeves, finding ways to work together, and compromising for the greater good will do wonders in solving what ails us and restoring the national trust.
Our history shows that public trust will be given but only when it is earned. It is time for Washington to do so by displaying a little less self-promoting profile and a lot more courage.