Guest commentary: Survey finds hostile political rhetoric erodes trust in government

By Tom Ivacko/Center for Local, State and Urban Policy

Government of the people?  For the people?  By the people? Unfortunately, not many of the people appear to be for the government at this point. The percentage of Americans who trust the federal government to “do what is right” always or most of the time has fallen dramatically over the last five decades, from 73 percent in 1958, to just 26 percent today.

In Michigan, the percentages are even lower. Just 12 percent trust the federal government always or most of the time. While trust is somewhat higher toward the state government (16 percent) and local governments (35 percent), these are alarming levels, too.

While a certain core level of distrust toward government is in our political DNA - codified in our checks and balances - and is probably good, today’s awful levels raise questions about the health of our democracy. We vest our power and authority in fellow citizens to make decisions on our behalf, but if we have no trust in those policymakers, how long can the system function?

Now some good news arrives from a different perspective on political trust. The Michigan Public Policy Survey at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy finds that Michigan’s local government leaders express relatively high levels of trust in their citizens.

Overall, 53 percent trust their citizens to be responsible participants in governance nearly always or most of the time. This is encouraging because other research shows that when local leaders trust their citizens, they are more likely to foster citizen engagement with the government.

In turn, the MPPS also finds that in communities where citizens are highly engaged with the government, leaders express even higher levels of trust in their citizens. So there may be a positive feedback loop, where engaged citizens make their leaders more trusting, thereby causing leaders to engage more citizens more deeply in the governments’ work. Now that’s of the people, for the people, by the people.

But other problems loom on the horizon. The MPPS also finds that local leaders express less trust in communities where they believe the civic discourse is divisive, instead of constructive. Trust suffers where people are hostile.

So what’s the lay of the land across Michigan today? Overall, 30 percent of local leaders say discourse is mostly constructive in their communities, while 11 percent say it is mostly divisive, and 50 percent say it is mixed. Meanwhile, 25 percent say discourse is more civil today than it was 10 years ago, while 13 percent say it is less civil. Not overwhelmingly good news, but things could be worse.

And they are worse, among the policy class in Washington D.C. and Lansing. And increasingly, too, in many of the online forums where much of today’s public “debate” plays out among mostly anonymous citizens. The political culture of our capital cities and of the new electronic public square has become corrosive: win at all costs, take no prisoners and demonize the opposition in the process.

The hostility has a real cost, draining the reservoir of trust.

Politics is tough business, and always has been. There will be winners, losers and fighting. But there can also be -- for our own good, needs to be -- a foundation of respect and mutual agreement that ultimately we’re in this together.

This is not a call for a Michigan group hug. But it is a call for all of us -- the politicians, the lobbyists and citizens alike -- to dial back the rhetoric. To be more responsible stewards of our democracy, so we leave it stronger than we found it. If we can’t even do that, we don’t much deserve it.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

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Sun, 05/19/2013 - 5:37am
I would say that trust develops in a community when the members of that community all think alike. Of course we don't trust the federal government when the radical right or left wingers are running it, whichever party is in power that is opposite to our way of thinking. But now at the local level, where my neighbor thinks as I do, and those in power in local government think as we do, then we trust them to do the right thing.
Sun, 05/19/2013 - 10:36am
I agree fully that the politically charged rhetoric of our leaders does have a negative impact on how people feel about government. However, in Michigan, I believe the actions of our legislature and governor has an even greater impact on how people respect government and governmental leaders. We have entered a time where, because the legislature can, it does... it does without regard for what damages might be done, it does without regard for what might be the needs of the people, it does because it can. Ultimately, even those who support the current actions of government, lose faith - they realize when the political winds shift, the same can, and will happen in reverse. Who would trust this kind of system?