Americans really don't trust their government. That's one takeaway from a new Pew Research Center poll, which found that just 19 percent of Americans now say they trust their government "some" or "most" of the time.
What's more, 20 percent say the federal government runs its programs well, while 59 percent say it is in need of "very major reform" and 55 percent believe "ordinary Americans" could do a better job of solving national problems than elected officials.
How will those attitudes shape the 2016 presidential election? Does Americans' distrust of government explain Donald Trump's popularity with Republican voters? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
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Americans may not trust their government, but they sure want it to do a lot of stuff. And a lot of the stuff they want government to do, they think it does well!
Dive deeper into the Pew survey, and you'll see that healthy majorities of Americans polled see an expansive role for government in American life -- they want government to keep us safe from terror, sure, but they also want it to protect the environment and strengthen the economy. Sixty-one percent want government to guarantee access to health care. Sixty-nine percent want government to guarantee a basic income to retirees.
Yes, the top-line number suggests Americans don't trust their government, even though they want it to do many things. I don't either! I don't trust it to invade my privacy with a National Security Agency spying program, nor to wage war in the Middle East with any degree of efficacy. I do trust it to inspect my food. I do trust it to alleviate poverty. I do trust it to provide a safety net.
Conservatives have a vast rhetorical advantage over liberals in these matters. Government, being a human endeavor, is necessarily imperfect. But when those imperfections reveal themselves, conservatives see them as proof that government, ultimately, fails. Liberals see the imperfections and try to figure out how to do better.
Guess what? The Pew survey suggests that Americans are on our side. Just 36 percent of Americans think the government does a good job helping people out of poverty. Does that mean they want government to turn away from the poor? Not exactly: 55 percent think the government should help alleviate poverty. That's not "stop." That's "do better."
Donald Trump, savvy candidate that he is, leads the GOP presidential race not by promising less or limited government: He's promising to govern better and more effectively -- and he's just giving the message an ugly right-wing gloss. That Republican voters love him so suggests they, like most Americans, want government to work even more than they mistrust it. That should be an inspiration to Democrats -- and a warning.
The latest Pew Research poll only reaffirms what's been obvious for a long time: We don't think government is particularly competent, except when we do.
Truth is, most Americans think government should do a great deal more than what the framers of the Constitution ever envisioned. A majority of the Pew survey's respondents -- even Republicans! -- favors a "major" federal role in environmental protection, Social Security and "ensuring access to high-quality education," whatever that means. Fifty years after Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, federal officials still haven't figured it out.
Republicans often get rapped for inconsistency. The charge isn't altogether unfair. Very few of us -- certainly very few politicians -- think through these questions with clear principles in mind. It's a problem of education.
My friend William Voegeli, a wise political scientist and author of the provocatively titled "The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion," recently summarized how thoughtful conservatives regard the role of government.
"Conservatives do not advocate government inaction, and it is not a conservative principle," Voegeli wrote. "Conservatives believe there are things the government should do, and things it should not do. The things it should do are things it should do well and see through to completion; the things it should not do are things it should not even start."
Beating the Islamic State? The government should do that. Providing universal preschool? If the states want to give it a whirl, maybe. But federal officials? That's beyond the scope of their constitutional mandate. Nationalizing health care? Oh, no ...
Which brings us to Donald Trump, a long-time fan of Canada's national health insurance system. The real estate mogul and erstwhile reality TV show star currently holds solid leads in all of the early Republican primary states. Meantime, the garden-variety conservative Republicans are struggling for second and third place.
Trump is an ideal candidate for our untrusting times. He's a glass-jawed faux-populist who relieves himself in gold-plated commodes. His proposals are plainly ridiculous. His tax reform "plan," for example, would add $10 trillion to the federal deficit.
But Trump's fans care about none of that. Trump says he will "make America great again." That's all that matters. His popularity makes no sense and perfect sense. He is the quintessential candidate for confusing and contradictory times.
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Ben Boychuk (bboychukcity-journal.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis (joelmmathisgmail.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.