Poll: Only 30% Of Americans Trust Their Government

A healthy distrust of government never hurt a nation. Sure, it may result in the occasional witch hunt or errant conspiracy theory, but it never resulted in a cult of personality or a state-sanctioned genocide.

It’s not extremist to assert that authoritarian regimes often are the result of a population’s prolonged, blind trust in the paid politicians who run a country. Dissent to dictatorships always arises, but often it comes too late, after the strong-armed party has achieved levels of power that cannot be relinquished without a violent coup.

Some countries- Turkey comes to mind- appear to be in the midst of such a transformation from a genuinely democratic society to one defined by the cult of one man’s personality. That man, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been accused of using strong-arm tactics to pass a referendum that would expand his powers, essentially making him the sole decision maker in the Middle Eastern nation. The referendum, which passed despite vocal critics alleging various forms of fraud, completely abolishes Turkey’s parliamentary system in favor of a presidential, and more likely dictatorial, format.

Naturally, Erdogan will be the first President, and nobody should be surprised. This is a man whose personal security detail violently beat protesters who had the audacity to hold signs and chant their disapproval of Erdogan’s anti-Western approach to leadership. Many believe that a recent coup which left 42 Turks dead was a political ploy orchestrated by Erdogan in order to justify the necessity for the “presidential” powers which the referendum grants.

Erdogan seeks to turn Turkey, a nation which has historically straddled the line between the West and the Middle East, into a distinctly Islamic state. And, like most politicians, he wants to attain the most power possible, and to retain that power for as long as possible. After all, as a paid politician, remaining in office means keeping his job.

Turkey’s population is very much divided over Erdogan. His supporters fervently express the need for Erdogan’s strong-armed leadership and embrace his anti-Western rhetoric. His detractors see the nation being steadily absorbed by the intolerance and authoritarianism which plagues so many Middle Eastern nations.

This divided population helps to explain a recent report which states that 58% of the Turkish population trusts the government. 58% is a fair approximation for Erdogan’s support base, and those supporters are currently trusting him with their children and nation’s future.

This majority’s trust in government, and particularly a single cult-of-personality type leader, is leading Turkey down a path to likely conflict and de-modernization. And, in general, trust in paid government officials should be doled out conservatively, only when thoroughly earned.

Think about it: in most governments, politicians are paid only if they remain in office. Public service is not a volunteer job for most. Long gone are the days of Cincinnatus, the legendary Roman consul who abandoned his plow to lead the nation during a time of war, returning to his plow when he had successfully returned his people to peace. 

The average politician’s level of care for his constituents often extends only as far as his job security allows. Abiding by one’s principles is dependent upon the political consequences. To make matters worse, many government systems grant higher salaries and privileges the higher a politician ascends through its ranks. This economic incentive inherent to political ascension almost always takes precedence over the interests of those who elect politicians to, quite simply, do as they wish.

This system of paid public service is the primary reason why so many were willing to lend their vote to Donald Trump. Politicians have always said the right things to get elected. However, once elected, feeding their children and continuing to pay their bills, hopefully accumulating a little spending money in the process, quickly becomes priority number one.

Like Cincinnatus, Donald Trump had a metaphorical plow to return to in his business empire.

His decisions, at least in theory, could be made on principle and loyalty to his constituents because he typifies the rare politician who does not need the government salary to survive.

Still, as any politician should, Donald Trump had to earn the trust of those who voted for him. Some still don’t trust his decorum, but so far, the President appears to be serious in following through on his promises. After all, he’s got nothing to lose.

Americans ranked ninth in the government-trust poll with 30% of the population having “trust- a general term somewhat open to interpretation- in their government. A Ballotpedia statistic showed that it has been 45 years since a majority of Americans professed trust in their government, a figure which illustrates Americans’ increasing skepticism of the paid politician.

The remaining 30%, one must figure, remains woefully naïve to the fallibility of the democratic system. Perhaps some in this 30 percent hold a government job or rely upon its gracious monthly benefits.

By and large, Americans have learned that, in most cases, politicians will do what it takes to keep their grip on power, whether that means compromising, lying, or even hopping to the opposition if it will help them win an election.

The shocking part of the poll is that many nations with well-documented histories of government incompetence and/or systemic abuses of power ranked ahead of the United States in terms of government trust.

These countries include:

 India (72% trust):

“It remains unclear whether mounting public anger and flagging growth can catalyze India to address widespread official corruption”

Canada (62%):

“Justin Trudeau isn’t the liberal hero the world makes him out to be”

Russia (58%):

“Anti-corruption protests continue across Russia”

Germany (55%):

“Merkel called “traitor of the people” as Germany marks reunification”

and South Africa (48%):

“South Africa: where corruption, rape, and murder are normal”

The point of these headlines is not to demean these nations or paint the United States as superior, though one could argue in terms of skepticism of government, Americans are wiser.

Perhaps the statistics do not reflect the true demographic split of those who trust and mistrust their government. Polling error is always a possibility. For the sake of this poll, the term “trust” was not made abundantly clear.

But, taking the percentages at face value, it is fair to wonder whether too much government trust leads to corruption and abuse of power. I would argue this is true, both logically and in reality.

Clearly, trust in government is not indicative of a nation’s quality of life. If that were the case, one in five Indians would not be living below the poverty line. Critical Russian journalists or imprisoned oligarchs certainly aren’t among the 58 percent that professes to “trust” Vladimir Putin.

America’s low percentage of government-trusting citizens is not reflective of any long-standing, widespread corruption within the American government. Though abuses of power routinely occur, the United States has levels of oversight that are far more effective than most, if not any other nation. And, I would argue, this relatively stringent oversight and accountability of politicians is reflective of the 70% of the population who do not trust the government.

Skepticism can be healthy. When applied to government, it may even save a nation from a dictatorship.

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