The antidote to bombast: politicians who will listen

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Langston Hughes

As I wrote last time, the Knight Foundation recently reported the lowest levels of trust in our government since Gallup began tracking the issue sixty years ago. In 1964, for example, 74 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to do what is right at least most of the time. Today that figure is less than 25 percent.

And it’s not just the government. Americans have little confidence in most of the institutions that supposedly run the country. Congress is in a league of its own, with a positive trust rating of less than 10 percent. But big business isn’t far behind, followed by the media, the criminal justice system, organized labor, banks, public schools, and the Supreme Court – essentially the institutions that own us, govern us, inform us, educate us, and judge us. In fact, only three institutions have the support of a majority of Americans: the police (although support has declined sharply in the last decade); small businesses; and the military, whose 72-percent approval rating makes it the most trusted institution in America.

It is no disparagement of the military to say that in a democracy in which the military is constitutionally subordinated to civilian control – and of which outgoing President (and former Supreme Allied Commander) Dwight Eisenhower famously warned us to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” – the public’s overwhelming preference for military over civilian leadership is a worrisome trend. This is particularly so, as I’ve written before, in a country in which neither public nor military service are widely shared: less than one percent of young people are engaged in public service and only 5 percent of Americans have any tie at all to our military.

Nor did all this just suddenly happen around 2016. Trust of almost all our institutions has been declining for over five decades. (Again, the military is a conspicuous exception: its approval rating has increased by half since 1981.) News accounts have tended to emphasize the discontent on the left, from the civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1960s to Black Lives Matter and the National Anthem. What they missed was the alienation of those who embraced patriotism and the flag.

And that’s the problem: the things that are supposed to bind us together don’t work any more. In fact, they have become bludgeons with which to beat each other. For some, the American flag lapel pin has become a mindless accessory, the pledge of allegiance a politicized loyalty oath. Others find Black Lives Matter and sanctuary cities incomprehensible. The things that should bring us together are being used as wedges to keep us apart.

Yet, if you cut through the name-calling and the rancor, you find that each side is asking for the same thing – that America live up to its promise . . . and to its promises. Fifty-five years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of “a promissory note” on which “America has defaulted.”

If we focus only on our differences, we will remain divided. But as I listen to young political candidates – Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, Tom Malinowski in New Jersey – I hear something else: a message of bringing us together, not necessarily over policies, on which we will rightly disagree, but over the process of how we work those disagreements out. They want to get elected, to be sure, but they also seem to understand that while “50 percent plus 1” will get them a majority, it isn’t enough to create a community. All politicians like to talk; it’s refreshing to come across some who also like to listen.

James G. Blaine

About James G. Blaine

Most of us undervalue what seem our tiny contributions to our communities and the world. As a result, we feel powerless, even victimized. But, like the butterfly effect in science, the lives we lead with our families, in our communities, and at work – all the so-called little things we do – collectively change the world. As I grow older, my ambition grows more modest but not less important: to participate fully and to contribute what I can. That’s my goal with this blog.