Since When Did We Become So Mistrusting of the Government?

By YeOldeScribe ~ May 10th, 2011 @ 11:30 pm

“Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.” – Sam Clemens (aka Mark Twain)

Let’s be honest, politicians don’t exactly get the best rap for being the most honest and trustworthy people on the planet. In fact, while it’s big news if the president’s approval rating dips below 50%, congress would celebrate if their approval rating ever got that high. As we poster earlier, Congress’ approval rating dipped to 16% in April, and hasn’t been above 37% once in the past two years according to Real Clear Politics averages. But members of Congress aren’t the only ones under scrutiny these days. No one has been under the microscope more than the President of the United States Barack Obama. Whether it’s answering questions over his birth certificate or the death of Osama bin Laden, it seems not even the most powerful man in the world is immune to criticism.

We at Political Progressives would be the first ones to admit that a little constructive criticism (and even a little criticism straight up) is a good thing. But as with all situations in life, there’s a line – and when the public at large is demanding 3+ forms of identification just to assuage any doubt that the president is really the president, we think the public has gone too far. There’s rationality and then there’s paranoia, and we’ve been on the wrong side of that debate for some time now.

So when did this happen? At what point did America lose its collective mind and stop trusting a government sworn to protect its citizens? We’ll attempt to answer this question today. And if we’re talking about situations that have shaken the public’s belief in the honesty and goodness of politicians, there’s two recent examples that come to mind.

First, there’s Watergate. Before Nixon was JFK, a president who gave off the persona that he could do no wrong – even though he frequently did. But even before then Nixon was making headlines with his “Checkers” speech, securing his Vice-President job for Eisenhower and becoming the “Teflon” politician before Regan made it cool.  Let’s not forget that Nixon not only won the presidential election in ’68, he won his re-election in ’72 as well. And he not only won the election, he crushed his Democratic challenger. Nixon won every state except Massachusetts (and he lost the District of Columbia), and the 18 million vote differential between Nixon and his challenger (George McGovern) remains to this day the largest gap in US history.

So it’s no small feat that Nixon did something that pissed off his electorate so much that he became the only president to ever resign from office. Nixon (allegedly) sent his goonies to break into the Democratic National Comittee Headquarters in early ’72, but they were caught by the modern day equivalent of a Rent-A-Cop. Through some of the best investigative journalism America has ever seen (go watch All the President’s Men if you don’t believe us), it was uncovered that Nixon was behind the whole thing – he paid the men to break in and abused his power as president to cover the whole affair up. Understandably the public’s trust in the presidency was shaken, especially after one of Gerald Ford’s first acts as President was to pardon his former boss. (We’d like to point out that we think it was actually a good thing for Ford to do that – the nation would have only trusted government less by going through with the federal trial, and that’s not what the country needed. But that doesn’t change the fact that most people saw the pardon as Ford ‘doing a solid’ for the former head honcho.)

Not more than 25 years later, Democrats proved they weren’t immune to abusing the office of the presidency either. Bill Clinton was already in hot water for the Whitewater scandal and was dealing with a Congress completely controlled by Republicans. So Clinton did what many men (especially men in power) do – he had an affair. The only problem was unlike many men, Clinton was President of the United States at the time, and also unlike other men, he denied having the affair under oath. That’s the big issue here – not that Clinton had the affair (many people in Congress had them before and many have had them since). Clinton lied while under oath and was held in contempt of court in a civil court, resulting in his ability to practice law being suspended by the Supreme Court itself. Clinton was impeached by the House for obstruction of justice and perjury, but the Senate failed to find him guilty and dismissed the claims. Still, the public was again shaken by the gross misconduct (at least on a moral level) that had taken place in the White House.

But you’ll notice that there’s a 30+ year gap between Nixon’s resignation and Obama’s victory in the Presidential Elections, and 10 years between Clinton’s scandal and Obama’s victory. So did either of these events affect the psyche of America as much as you’d think? We’ll argue that the Watergate scandal was the seed of doubt that was planted in the minds of Americans, and that Clinton lying under oath was the sunlight to make that seed grow.

So why did it take 10 years for that seed to turn into the ugly flower of distrust? The first reason is simple – 9/11. There’s no denying that the events of September 11th, 2001 brought our country together in a way thought impossible just a day earlier. But that feeling of togetherness couldn’t last forever, and with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and now Libya) becoming unpopular, we think we’re just starting to see some of the delayed reaction to Zippergate.

The second reason is also simple – there’s an element of racism here. Look, we know we’ve been playing the race card more often then Jesse Jackson or Johnnie Cochran, but it doesn’t make it any less true. No other President has ever had to answer to such scrutiny to his birth. We’re more than willing to admit that race isn’t the only issue causing that seed of distrust to grow, but if Clinton’s fib was the sunlight, then racism is most certainly the water that is causing the plant to blossom at this exact point in American history.

Finally, there’s one more factor that should be addressed – we’ll call it the Miracle-Gro in our plant metaphor: accessibility of information. No other President has had to answer to bloggers (like us!) and website owners besides just the mainstream press. No other president had an electorate with seemingly every fact and figure known to man at their fingertips via the internet. Most importantly, the internet – specifically social networking sites like MySpace and now Facebook – gave even the common, ignorant American a political voice they wouldn’t have otherwise. For better or for worse, these people are being heard and spreading information faster than it’s ever been spread before (even if some it turns out to be false in the end).

On their own, none of these things would cause the rampant mistrust and paranoia that exists today. But combine them all and you’ve got a political Venus Fly Trap – a plant that eats politicians for breakfast that they can’t really escape from. As we said earlier, a little criticism and probing isn’t a bad thing. But what the public is doing to President Obama is so wrong it should be criminal. Obama has manages to dodge the plant’s attack so far, but we fear it’s only a matter of time before the plant of mistrust wins and swallows him whole.

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