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Will the Coronavirus Kill What’s Left of Americans’ Faith in Washington?

2020-05-23 09:00:22

Patricia Millner, a nurse in Hershey, Pa., was born the year Dwight D. Eisenhower was re-elected. The economy was booming, and trust was high: When national pollsters began asking the question two years later, about three-quarters of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing.

A lot has changed since then. Vietnam happened, then Watergate. During the 2008 financial crisis, Ms. Millner watched banks get bailed out while people lost their homes. Now there is a pandemic and exploding unemployment, and as she sees it, the government is once again looking out for the wealthy, while everyone else is left to fend for themselves.

“Every time I see a commercial on TV that says we are all in this together, my blood boils,” Ms. Millner said. “We are not in this together! The upper middle class is fine. But two-thirds of this country is going down the drain.”

Long before the coronavirus crisis, another one was brewing: a slow but steady decline in how many Americans trust the federal government. That number has been declining for decades, through Democratic and Republican administrations. And in 2019, it reached one of the lowest points since the measure began: Just 17 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time,” according to the Pew Research Center.

The lack of trust in Washington does not necessarily mean that people do not want any government. Polls consistently show much more faith in local government, and some governors are currently enjoying high marks for their handling of the pandemic.

Even so, in a week of more than 20 interviews, Americans said that the government in Washington was not rising to meet the challenge of the virus.

Many noted that corporations seemed to be getting the lion’s share of federal relief money, while small businesses suffered. They expressed bafflement that people had been asked to stay home and sacrifice, but were then not given enough financial support to do so. Some said it made no sense for entire states to be locked down when some places within were affected far more than others.

The country is in the midst of one of the largest government relief efforts in recent history. Many people said they had received money, but that it had not done much to fix their broader finances, like rent and mortgage payments.

And while the answers did follow a partisan pattern — Democrats tended to be more skeptical than Republicans of Washington right now because they disapprove of President Trump — Americans also expressed a deeper dissatisfaction that has been building for years.

“I don’t trust these people, I don’t believe them,” said Curtis Devlin, 42, an Iraq War veteran who lives in California, referring to national political leaders of both parties. “The people whose interests they represent are donors, power brokers, the parties.”

Moments of national crisis tend to build solidarity and boost faith in government. Trust reached its highest point in recent history immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But it started falling again after the invasion of Iraq, through Barack Obama’s presidency and now that of Donald J. Trump. Since 2008, it has not risen above 25 percent.

Mr. Devlin dates his disillusionment to his time in Iraq. He was in law school when the United States invaded the country. He wanted to do something that mattered, and his leaders in Washington described the war as necessary and moral.

So, at 28, he joined the military as a JAG Corps officer.

“In my imagination, I was writing a constitution and being involved in helping a country from scratch,” he said.

Instead, his job required him to fashion legal arguments to justify killing. “It changed me,” he said.

Mr. Devlin added, “These ideas with which I so fiercely identified turned out to be wrong,” he said. “Truth, justice and the American way. That there were good guys, and they were us.”

The experience made him extremely skeptical of the people in charge of this country, a feeling that has influenced the way he sees the response to the pandemic. The federal government has not been great, he said, but state governments have not been either, unfairly applying what he saw as overly broad stay-at-home restrictions. That amounts to leaders failing to treat citizens’ sacrifices respectfully, he said.

“There was this well of good will and intention to help, and that’s been squandered,” he said. “When people feel their good will has been squandered, that’s when they lose faith in government.”

The disillusionment has become a facet of national political campaigning. Mr. Trump pitched himself as an outsider fighting for those left behind by Washington’s policies. Joe Biden, the Democratic front-runner, talks that way, too. But for Americans who no longer trust government, the promises, even from their own party, sound hollow.

“We still don’t really have health care, we are still paying high prices for drugs, we are still in a war that has lasted for 17 years,” said Ms. Millner, a Democrat. “Me voting for Joe Biden isn’t going to change any of that. That’s what’s frustrating.”

The way Americans answer the trust question does have a strong partisan flavor: Republicans tend to trust it more under Republican presidents, and Democrats under Democratic presidents.

And trust has fallen over all as the conservative movement increasingly pushed the idea that government was a threat to personal liberty and should be limited, a view that holds sway among Republicans today.

Even so, there has been a powerful downward trend among members of both parties over half a century. Why?

Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale University, argues that the answer lies in two questions: Are things going well, and is the government representing me? As inequality has risen, the answer to both has increasingly been no.

“Rising inequality is a huge shock to our society and political system,” said Mr. Hacker, who explores the topic in a forthcoming book, “Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality.” “People feel like they are not gaining,” he said, “and that government is not responsive — that it doesn’t work on behalf of ordinary citizens.”

The result, he added, is that “our democracy is not working as it should.”

Trust in government is one measure of a country’s democratic health, he said. And democracies that do not have much of it tend to be less stable.

Patricia Bolgiano has lived through multiple economic downturns. Each time, she said, leaders in Washington responded in ways that left her family behind, while a select few got wealthier.

She grew up poor in Baltimore, and remembers a rising culture of wealth in the 1980s that bore no resemblance to her life.

“‘Dynasty’ and ‘Knots Landing,’ that’s what you aspired to,” she said. “You wanted those Linda Evans haircuts and shoulder pads. I could never have afforded any of those things. I was working in a low-end retail job. There was just this big disconnect.”

Mrs. Bolgiano was working in a call center at a regional bank in Maryland during the stock market crash of 1987 and the savings and loan crisis. She remembers scared-sounding customers on the other end of the phone, and secretaries talking about their bosses’ golden parachutes.

It happened again 20 years later. One evening in 2008, she was driving and listening to the news on the radio. Banks were collapsing. She knew what was coming next: bailouts for Wall Street, and no accountability for what they had done to hurt the economy.

“They knew they could get out of anything,” she said.

Mrs. Bolgiano eventually earned a degree in graphic design, but she never managed to reach her life’s goal of earning $80,000 a year or taking a trip to Europe. She and her husband retired to rural Texas because it was cheaper than Maryland.

She said she got a stimulus check and used the money to make some house repairs. But she is still angry at both parties. Their leaders remind her of the popular kids in high school “playing games without a moral compass.”

The pandemic, she said, is the same old story. People were told to stay home and adapt, though they had no savings. And while a lot of money was disbursed, Mrs. Bolgiano does not believe it went to the people who really needed it.

“Why did multimillion-dollar businesses get it and small vendors did not?” she said. “The packages and rules are made by those in power for friends and family, not the general public.”

Low levels of trust among large numbers of people can yield fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Amanda Robert, a political activist in Michigan, grew up in a working-class family and understands where those theories come from. Feelings of powerlessness bring deep anxiety and a craving for an explanation, a way to contain and even organize the world around you.

“It’s so scary to watch people unraveling during this pandemic because they don’t trust,” she said, noting that people she never would have expected are sharing conspiracy theories on social media.

A friend shared a fake documentary saying the pandemic had been deliberately planned. Another friend in nursing school was insistent that people should not quarantine. When she suggested that a friend call a state representative to get help with a problem related to unemployment benefits, her friend’s response was to attack the representative.

“The reply I got was, ‘I don’t trust them to do anything,’” Ms. Robert said. “‘They are giving us unemployment so we become reliant on them.’”

The trust story is different when it comes to local government. In 2018, about two-thirds of Americans said they viewed their local government favorably, according to Pew. And there is some evidence that during this crisis, people are learning to rely on one another in their communities and rediscovering the power of local government.

Clark Donnelly, a teacher in Mendota, Minn., says he is sick of bad talk about the government. Mr. Donnelly, who serves on the Mendota City Council, said residents were going out of their way to help one another, leaving food packages in the tiny town post office. They are still willing to volunteer their time, and that gives him hope.

“I go to these cable commission meetings once a month — they’re boring and really hard to sit through — yet there are 20 people showing up to give up their great spring Minnesota night to do their civic duty,” he said, noting that since the pandemic took hold the meetings have been held by phone. “That’s the government, right there.”


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