It’s often said that people mistrust government because their every interaction with it— at the motor vehicles department or dealing with Social Security—is filled with frustration. But since the 1990s, the service-delivery side of government has been so streamlined that going to the DMV is a joy compared to interactions with a private company such as a cable-TV provider or health insurance company. The Social Security Administration regularly wins awards for customer satisfaction.
So why do people still mistrust government? In answering that question we often look at government from the wrong end—as a service-delivery system with citizens as customers. But we form our strongest impressions of government when we act as citizens, not customers—that is, when we vote, volunteer or contribute to campaigns, or take an interest in a legislative decision. All those are often ugly, unrewarding processes that erode all confidence that government can do anything right.
Political scientists tell us that most voters ignore the political process, reacting mostly to results. That’s true, but there are moments when they do tune in—and what they see repels them. During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, for example, polls showed that a surprising number of voters were aware of the “Cornhusker Kickback” (a special benefit for Nebraska, to win the vote of Senator Ben Nelson) and other procedural twists needed to avoid a GOP filibuster. Confused about the substance of the legislation, voters saw this as evidence that the legislation was illegitimate and probably not in their interest.
In the months since, Republicans have adopted a strategy that James Fallows of The Atlantic refers to as “nullification,” blocking even laws that have already been passed, such as the one creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. To work around this obstruction, more arcane maneuvers have been needed, such as recess appointments.
Or consider what will happen as people begin to take an interest in the 2012 elections. In the Republican primaries, they see candidates dependent for survival on a single wealthy backer. While many small donors drew a sense of empowerment in the 2008 election from Barack Obama’s campaign with its unprecedented base of 3 million contributors, the president’s fight for re-election is concentrating on fat cats able to give the de facto maximum of $38,500 or contribute to Obama’s Super PAC.
There are dozens of proposed laws that might reduce the power of money, mischief and misinformation in the political process. The first question we should ask about them is, Will this help to restore confidence in government? Take the recent enthusiasm for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. Some versions (there are about a dozen) might, if enacted, slightly hinder the culture of Super PAC and billionaire-driven politics. But a campaign for such an amendment sends a message that nothing can be done about corruption unless and until supermajorities in both houses of Congress and thirty-eight states ratify an amendment to the Constitution. That is, never.
Yet there are reforms entirely within the Supreme Court’s view of what’s constitutional that are succeeding in the states. New York City’s public financing system, for example, which Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to enact statewide, gives small donors a meaningful role by matching small contributions six-to-one. Such reforms restore confidence in government by making citizens participants in the process rather than bystanders watching the Super PACs fight it out.
Or consider another area of reform: transparency. Opening up government, revealing details—like Congressional earmarks or the misuse of stimulus dollars—is essential to restoring trust. But transparency cuts both ways; it can help people understand government, recognize when it’s doing its job well and hold officials accountable. Or it can give people just enough information to become more cynical.
An example is the state-level proposal promoted by anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, joined by some progressives, to require that credit card bills of all public employees be posted online. It’s pretty easy to predict the result—some bureaucrat will eventually be caught using a state credit card at a strip club. He (or she) will be shamed and fired. But the public will have no greater understanding of how that state’s government works. On the other hand, in some states, information about multibillion-dollar business tax breaks isn’t publicly available or even tracked. And without context, such as can be provided by good journalists who understand government, raw data are more likely to generate mini-scandals and cynicism than to enlighten citizens.
Fixing the political process—from money in politics, through the electoral process, legislation and the implementation of policy in the bureaucracy—is essential to restoring confidence in government. That confidence, in turn, can help support a government that takes on big problems and solves them. It can be a virtuous circle. But not all reforms will have the same effect on public trust. Restoring trust has never been an explicit goal of political reformers, but it should be. And it will quickly become clear why some reforms are smarter than others.