Reinventing Trust in Government

Reinventing Trust in Government

Reinventing Trust in Government

How you look at things.
Oct. 5 2001 3:00 AM

Reinventing Trust in Government

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Is the era of worrying about big government over? 

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

That's what the media have concluded from last month's terrorist attacks. "Now, Government Is the Solution, Not the Problem," proclaims the New York Times. "Suddenly, the political language of a generation looks dated: Nobody wants to get the government off their backs." The front page of the Wall Street Journal says the attacks "brought an abrupt end to the trend toward less expansive government." Los Angeles Times ace reporter Ron Brownstein writes that "the entire impulse to distrust government" seems "instantly anachronistic."

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Obviously, a massacre of American civilians by a foreign enemy, followed by an air travel shutdown and a stock market slide, prompts Americans of all ideologies to rally around their leaders and look to Washington, D.C., for a response. But does it signal a general revival of trust in government? If so, will that revival last? Has it ended our concern about keeping government off our backs? Does it reflect structural changes in our beliefs about which things are the government's business and which aren't? So far, the evidence supports none of those conclusions.

Exhibit A for the government-is-back thesis is a Sept. 25-27 Washington Post poll question: "How much of the time do you trust the government in Washington to do what is right?" Sixty-four percent of respondents answered "just about always" or "most of the time," more than double the percentage that gave those answers in April 2000. It seems a straightforward question, but it isn't. We're in a moment of national crisis. If a pollster asks whether you trust the government and whether you think President Bush is doing a good job, patriotism—or fear of appearing unpatriotic—prompts you to say yes.

Even if you take these questions literally, they're ambiguous. Take the job approval question. On Sept. 9, public approval "of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president" stood at 55 percent in the Post poll. By Sept. 13, 6,000 dead civilians later, Bush's approval rating had soared to 86 percent. Is it plausible that two of every three people who previously disapproved of Bush changed their minds about him? Or is it more plausible that Sept. 11 changed their interpretation of his job? A month ago, the job was about tax cuts, oil drilling, and HMO regulation. Now it's about fighting terrorism.

It's even harder to explain why so many respondents now say "things in the nation are generally headed in the right direction" rather than "off on the wrong track." In June, the right/wrong ratio in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll was 43-39. But four days after the September catastrophe and the onset of economic shock, the ratio shot up to 72-11. Is it conceivable that three of every 10 Americans thought things were suddenly heading in the right direction? For that matter, look at the Post's question, "How much confidence do you have in the ability of the U.S. government to prevent further terrorist attacks against Americans in this country?" Four years ago, only 35 percent of respondents said they had "a great deal" or "a good amount" of confidence. On Sept. 11, after the worst terrorist attacks ever, the percentage expressing such confidence jumped to 66 percent.

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It's absurd to accept at face value that Sept. 11 infused so many previously skeptical Americans with literal trust in Bush, the country's direction, or terrorism prevention. It's equally absurd to conclude that they now literally trust government.

But suppose they do, for the time being. Should we then accept the media's verdict that this marks the end of an era? Is the New YorkTimes' Louis Uchitelle correct that "Years of resistance to government spending probably dissolved on Sept. 11"?

Having declared Bush "toast" a year ago when his poll numbers dived, Frame Game advises the government-is-back crowd to wait for more data before drawing long-term conclusions. Conservatives learned to be wary of wartime popularity spikes in 1991, when the 90 percent approval rating of another President Bush—and with it, the near-majority of respondents claiming to "trust the government"—evaporated after victory in the Persian Gulf. This time, a slide in the polls seems even more likely, since, according to the Post's survey analysis, the public holds "expectations of victory that far exceeded the Bush administration's stated war aims," much less its ability to achieve those aims.

The government-is-back movement thinks spending has taken a fundamental turn. "In just two weeks, the terrorist attacks have turned a two-decade trend toward less government into a headlong rush for more," says the Journal's front-page story. But what was last year's rate of increase in spending? Eight percent. And what was the front-page headline in yesterday's Post? "Deal Reached on 8% Spending Boost."

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It's even less clear that our beliefs about government's role have changed. "Republicans and Democrats alike are talking about a muscular new role for government," says the New York Times. "They are bailing out the airlines, establishing a new Office of Homeland Security, passing a big new aid package to rebuild the areas devastated by the attacks and pondering an even bigger effort to stimulate an ailing economy." Since when are bailouts, national defense, disaster relief, or economic stimulus new? And since when does spending by congressional Republicans, who have always greased their re-election prospects with subsidies, demonstrate fundamental change in American ideology?

It's true that Bush's $75 billion stimulus package will add to this year's 8 percent spending hike. According to the Post, the Democratic Senate leader wants the package to be half tax cuts and half spending, while the Republican Senate leader wants it to be all tax cuts. Let's assume they split the difference, and three-quarters of it ends up being tax cuts. Does this represent, as the New York Times suggests, a "muscular new role for government"? Then how can exponents of the government-is-back theory turn around, as they do, and tout polls showing that Americans are willing to pay higher taxes to fight terrorism? How can both tax cuts and tax hikes be evidence of trust in government?

To bolster its case, the Journal cites the Homeland Security initiative and the Pentagon's request for an extra $17 billion. Meanwhile, Post columnist Stephen Barr notes that in the Post poll, conservatives are now even more likely to say they trust government than liberals are. The two points cancel each other out. Conservatives trust the government more now because the government is focusing on tasks conservatives have always entrusted to it: defense and public safety. They're willing to spend more on defense, just as they were under President Reagan. Their views about government's role haven't changed.

The same is true of law enforcement. "Washington is erupting with proposals to give existing agencies new powers," declares the Journal. "The Immigration and Naturalization Service is tightening its grip on the borders. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is proposing new authority to wiretap phones and screen e-mail. The Treasury, which just two weeks ago advocated easing the nation's money-laundering rules, is now in favor of tightening some of them." Of course politicians and bureaucrats want more state power. And of course conservative voters support this in the context of immigration and crime control. They always have.

In its analysis of its government-comeback poll, the Post reports, "The public also showed a broad willingness to forgo many civil liberties to give the authorities more police power to fight terrorists." What the Post neglects to mention is that every new police power endorsed in its poll—wiretaps, detentions, information sharing among agencies—is phrased to include one of two caveats: Either it applies exclusively to foreigners or suspected terrorists, or it requires a "court order" or "search warrant."

What happens when these caveats are removed? The New York Times tried that in two surveys after Sept. 11. Respondents were asked, "In order to reduce the threat of terrorism, would you be willing or not willing to allow government agencies to monitor the telephone calls and e-mail of ordinary Americans on a regular basis?" Each time, a majority said it was unwilling. Likewise, when the Journal's pollsters asked people whether they were willing to accept "wiretapping of phone calls without obtaining a court order," a plurality said no.

Already, citizens and lawmakers are tapping the brakes on the big-government bandwagon. "Plan to Expand U.S. Powers Alarming Some in Colorado," reports the New York Times. "GOP Leaders Oppose Bush Stimulus Plan," warns the Journal. Today's Post adds that Senate Democrats have "toned down an administration proposal that would have permitted the indefinite jailing of noncitizens suspected of terrorist offenses." Less than a week after its printing, the Times' "Government Is the Solution" story is beginning to look dated, almost anachronistic. Easy come, easy go.