Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

What Ever Happened to Public Trust?

Luis Lugo


February 5, 1996

The bad news hits us from every direction: distrust among Americans is soaring, confidence in our public institutions is plummeting, and every form of social involvement is declining. Everyone seems to be "Bowling Alone," to borrow the metaphor coined a couple of years ago by Harvard's Robert Putnam to describe the pervasive nature of this civic indifference.

Just last week The Washington Post ran a front-page series on a major national survey showing how our increasing lack of trust in each other is feeding a growing cynicism about government. This increasing cynicism makes for greater apathy, and apathy breeds ignorance of even the basics of our democracy. And we can't count on the optimism of youth to reverse the slide. The largest national survey of college freshmen, released just last month, indicates that their interest in government and politics is at an all-time low.

We have come to such dire straits that an enterprising University of Texas political scientist could convince some foundations to put up four million dollars for a National Issues Convention in January devoted mainly to getting citizens to talk to each other about public policy (PBS planned to devote some twelve hours of television time to it). The good professor declared it all a great success. But what struck me was that though the invitation to participate in this civic conversation included an all-expenses paid trip and a $300 honorarium, barely half of the representative sample of 900 Americans took him up on the offer.

What is going on here? Why has the civic spirit seemingly left the American people? No doubt the reasons are complex and reflect deeper cultural currents in American society. Insofar as the problem surfaces at the political level, however, we have an obligation to look for practical ways to counteract this erosion of public trust. We should note, for instance, that the disaffection is most pronounced among citizens who consider themselves politically independent. Could it be that their discontent is fed by a sense that they lack viable alternatives within our two-party system? If so, then perhaps what we need to do is open up our electoral system to enable new parties to emerge.

It is also striking that much of the anger directed against the federal government stems from bitter disillusionment with politicians who, despite their repeated promises, have not fixed all our problems. But that's because too many of us have expected too much of government, and too often our politicians have indulged us. The answer, in my view, is not indiscriminate trashing of the government, but a more careful specification of its proper role, particularly in relation to other institutions of society. As the Center's study of welfare policy shows, there is an alternative to the current system that avoids the twin dangers of expecting too much from government or nothing at all.

Of course this all requires a citizenry that takes its civic responsibilities seriously. And herein lies a problem we mainly try to avoid. Bad-mouthing the government may express legitimate grievances, but it can just as easily serve as a convenient cover for our own irresponsibility as citizens. When all we do is clamor for our rights and demand our piece of the pie, we soon become contemptuous of politics and, perhaps unconsciously, even of ourselves. For the truth is that our life in the body politic is meant to be more than that, and involves duties and responsibilities no less than rights and claims. This may sound quaint, but the need for civic education has never been greater.

—Luis E. Lugo, Associate Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”