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AEI Classics: Americans Remain Wary of Washington

Friday, August 2, 2013

Americans’ estrangement from the federal government arises because the government has broken three tacit compacts with the people.

The American Enterprise Institute celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. To commemorate the occasion, The American will periodically republish some of AEI scholars’ best essays as “AEI Classics.” We begin with a December 23, 1997 Wall Street Journal essay by Charles Murray, titled “Americans Remain Wary of Washington.” Murray’s argument about Americans’ dissatisfaction with government is as pertinent today as it was sixteen years ago.

-The Editors

The received Republican wisdom now proclaims that Americans don’t hate the federal government after all. Most Americans like the federal government. Republicans must let the American people know that they too believe in government’s affirmative role.

This argument draws support from Americans’ polling responses when asked about whether government can have a positive impact (we still believe it is possible) and our attachment to the nation (we continue to love America passionately). But these positives should not obscure the significant deterioration in Americans’ attachment to the federal government. “Hatred” is not the right word for the state we have reached at the end of 1997. But “alienation,” “distrust, “disillusionment,” and “estrangement” are all close to the mark.

The most direct quantitative measure of the change in the public mood comes from polling data that let us follow opinions over the course of several decades, assembled by my colleague Karlyn Bowman and her coauthor Everett Ladd in their forthcoming book, What’s Wrong. Do public officials ignore what ordinary people think? The proportion saying yes increased from 35 percent in 1952 to about 60 percent in recent years. How many politicians are crooked? The proportion answering “quite a few” or “all” now stands at 53 percent, more than double what it was in Ike’s day. Is government run for the benefit of a few big interests instead of the benefit of all the people? The numbers don’t begin until 1964, when 29 percent said yes. By 1997, that percentage had increased two-and-a-half fold to 74 percent. Perhaps the most startling data come in response to the homespun question, “How much do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?” Seventy-three percent said “most of the time” or “just about always” in 1958; in 1997, it was 23 percent.

In the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, about three-quarters of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time. Then came a plunging decline, with the Reagan era as the lone aberration. Now, about three-quarters of the American people do not trust the federal government to do the right thing even most of the time.

From the founding through the early 1960s, citizens did not expect much from the federal government. Running the daily life of society was the job of ‘we the people.’ It is one of the pleasant side effects of limited government: the government doesn’t get blamed for failing to solve problems that are none of its business.

All of the trends I have listed involve basic stances toward government. All show long-term changes so large that they represent a major shift in the public mind. Why? Political commentators have tended to view such trends as reflecting some mysterious disorder in the American psyche, as in Peter Jennings’s pronouncement on the ABC evening news that the 1994 election results were a “temper tantrum.” Let me propose an alternative explanation.

Among the nations of the earth, the ties that bind Americans to their national government have been uniquely idealistic. We have been in love with the idea of being American citizens, free and independent, equal before the law with every other American, living our lives as we see fit. The national government validated that celebratory view of ourselves, and we loved the government for doing it. We and our government maintained this happy state of affairs by observing three tacit compacts.

First, from the founding through the early 1960s, citizens did not expect much from the federal government. Running the daily life of society was the job of "we the people." It is one of the pleasant side effects of limited government: the government doesn’t get blamed for failing to solve problems that are none of its business. And more: when we did solve our own problems, we gave credit to the political system that left us free to do so, the system embodied in the federal government.

Second, the federal government tried hard to avoid taking sides in specific moral disputes that divided Americans. The moral battles that arose — slavery, suffrage for women, and prohibition, for example — were resolved via constitutional amendment. The whole nation had to take a stand, and the federal government didn’t get too far out in front.

Third, the national government made it easy for us to pride ourselves in being good citizens. If the ordinary Joe did nothing more than make an honest living and take care of his family, he was as good an American as the highest in the land. Presidents, senators, and congressmen constantly said so. And in practice as well, the federal government didn’t ask much more than that — through the 1950s, remarkably few federal laws affected individuals or businesses.

Today, all three of these compacts have been broken. The first compact is so obviously void that little need be said about it. There is no social or economic problem of which a president can say, “That’s not the government’s responsibility.” And so, naturally, the government is blamed when problems are not solved. This irritates everyone. People who opposed the government’s intervention in the first place are irritated, but so are the people whom the intervention was intended to help, because whatever the government does is never enough.

The federal government tried hard to avoid taking sides in specific moral disputes that divided Americans.

The second compact, that the federal government would not push one side of specific moral issues, is also dead. Abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, and prayer in the schools are just a few of the many political controversies in which the federal government has, by law and jurisprudence, allied itself with policies opposed by large numbers of Americans on the basis of deeply held moral principles. Thus, large numbers of Americans are put in the position famously condemned by Thomas Jefferson, of having one’s taxes used for the propagation of beliefs that one finds abhorrent. A broad alienation from the taxing power follows naturally.

The breaking of the third compact, the one that made it easy to be a good American, is more complicated. One of the less noticed but most profound consequences of governmental activism since 1964 has been the geometric expansion of law that it created. By the 1990s, there are more thousands of ways in which Americans can break federal law than anyone can count; not just as misdemeanors either, but as criminal felonies.

The most direct consequence of the proliferation of law is that large numbers of Americans are vulnerable to the government’s whim. Just about every employer can be found in violation of some regulation of OSHA, EPA, EEOC, or one of dozens of other bureaucracies. Just about every taxpayer can be found to have violated the tax code. Nor is the government reluctant to enforce this sprawling edifice of law. The handful of cases that make the news (e.g., the farmer who loses his land for killing a rodent protected by the endangered species act) are only extreme examples of the widespread harrying, pestering, hectoring, obstructing, and fining that afflict citizens who not only were unaware of breaking the law but in fact have done nothing wrong in any substantive or ethical sense.

These objects of the government’s wrath believe in their hearts that they are just trying to make an honest living and take care of their families — the old definition of being a good American. But now the government is telling them they are criminals. They quite reasonably construct a rationale that leaves their sense of their own good citizenship intact — which means blaming the federal government instead.

The alienation of citizens from their government is not limited to people whom the government decides to prosecute. Because so many regulations are so unconnected to anything resembling right or wrong, people who want to be law-abiding find themselves picking and choosing the laws that they deem worthy of respect. It is a pernicious process regardless of whether they get caught when they break the rules. People who feel compelled to judge laws on a case-by-case basis have attached provisos to one of their most basic civic loyalties.

The national government made it easy for us to pride ourselves in being good citizens.

The three compacts were tacit, and so has been the breaking of them. The effects vary. At the extreme are the Timothy McVeighs, a violent handful. Then comes a small minority that can be said to hate the federal government, though nonviolently. Then comes a substantial portion of the population who distrust and are disillusioned by the federal government. If one takes the polling results seriously, these groups together comprise a majority of the population. Their estrangement does not arise from a few political disagreements that can be fixed by the right package of federal goodies, but from a felt betrayal of what the federal government is supposed to mean in American life. For this very large group, the federal government is losing legitimacy.

It has a lot of legitimacy left. I am not predicting the imminent demise of the Republic. But we have already reached a point where much of the electorate yearns for a man on horseback who will reenergize America’s image of itself as the land of the free and the home of the brave. In this lies a short-term political opportunity of huge potential that the Republicans are nervously running from. In the long term, absent a restoration of the broken compacts, it is reasonable to worry about what kind of man on horseback will convince the American people he has a better idea.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Minor edits have been made to conform with The American’s style guidelines. This essay is Murray's original text of the Wall Street Journal article.

FURTHER READING: More recently, Murray writes “Of Presidents and Duty” and “Is America Still Exceptional?” Josh Good reviews Murray’s latest book in “Rediscovering American Exceptionalism.” Jonah Goldberg says President Obama is “Cynic-in-Chief,” Steve Conover wonders “Is Government Really 'The Solution?'” and John Steele Gordon asks “What’s in a Name?

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group; Photo by saddako/Shutterstock

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