Topic: Government & Politics


The beating heart of democracy is not freedom. Experience shows us that freedom is a malleable concept that can become a pawn in a zero-sum game. A woman’s freedom to choose whether to bear her child impedes the child’s freedom to live. A white man’s freedom to choose his friends, associates and customers can diminish a black man’s freedom to live and do what he wants. Increasing the total amount of productive freedom is the mission of a democracy, but not its heart.

Its heart is trust. The theory that the best government is government for the people, by the people relies on the belief that Americans can be trusted to determine their own fate without recklessly harming and exploiting others. A representative democracy, like ours, asserts that the people will choose representatives who will govern wisely, responsible, and selflessly—representatives who can be trusted. And representatives who can be trusted must, by necessity, be capable of trust. They must trust the people who elected them to be sufficiently informed, civically responsible and wise to accept difficult decisions made for the good of the nation as a whole, even if they represent sacrifices for particular voters or voting blocks. They must trust their colleagues in government to share their dedication and willingness to work for the best interests of the nation rather than narrow self-interest. They must trust their leaders, without whom they will devolve into an ineffective, bickering mob. Most of all, they must trust the system of democracy that they serve.

The initial collapse of the 700 billion dollar bailout plan in Congress was the most vivid in a series of events that demonstrate a catastrophic deficit of trust in America. Certainly, there were many factors involved, including the fact that nobody was entirely sure that the expensive, perhaps panicky measure was necessary or would accomplish what it was supposed to do. But the main reason the first bill failed to be passed was the same reason that critical immigration legislation failed, and that so many other initiatives have failed to achieve consensus: a massive breakdown in trust on all sides of the democratic process. The ominous implications of this go far beyond the bailout, ultimately passed in corrupted form, and the current financial crisis. American democracy is experiencing a crisis of trust that threatens the government, the culture, and the American way of life.

Who is responsible? Everyone is responsible. Historians and social scientists have convincingly chronicled the erosion of trust in American institutions, beginning with President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. But the past eight years accelerated a self-destructive process that already needed desperately to be stopped.

There is a scene in the 1970s horror film “Poltergeist,” phony-looking by today’s special effects standards but disturbing at the time, where a character looks in the bathroom mirror and sees a bit of lose skin on his face. He picks at it, and a bloody chunk of his face falls in the sink. Panicked, he continues to pick at his face until he claws his entire face off. When I first saw the scene in a movie theater, I found it as silly as it was horrific: why would anyone keep picking at his face if it was coming off? But that is exactly what Republicans, Democrats, the media and the public have been doing to the face of democracy.

Democratic talking head Paul Begala, a former Clinton aide and host of the late-and-not-lamented CNN show “Crossfire,” recently called President Bush a “high functioning moron.” To the extent that Begala, perhaps the slimiest of the Clinton familiars (if one doesn’t count the despicable Dick Morris), has any credibility as a serious analyst, he is using it to destroy respect and credibility of the nation’s president in a time of domestic crisis and war. Conservative radio pundits routinely accuse liberals in our Congress of “hating America,” implying that their policy initiatives are aimed at weakening and undermining the country. Democrats tell the public that all Republicans care about is helping their corporate friends and lining their pockets. Republicans tell the public that the Democratic Party is determined to destroy core American liberties, and is bewitched by environment fanatics to stop human commerce and the progress of civilization. Our elections have been fixed. Our representatives are bought and paid for. Increasing numbers of previously sane and rational citizens accept wild conspiracy theories that hold our own government responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center. Activists for minority rights encourage paranoid beliefs that the government launched the AIDS virus to kill African Americans.

Pick, pick.

Meanwhile, those in a position to prove these hyperbolic critics wrong have seemingly resolved to make the worst characterizations seem plausible. President Bush tolerated administration hacks and incompetents out of misplaced loyalty or inattention: there is no excuse for allowing the likes of Alberto Gonzalez to attain, endure and disgrace himself in an office as critical as Attorney General. Given the responsibility of working at the center of our nation’s financial system, with the investments and futures of millions of Americans depending on their attention and judgement, America’s banking executives, investors, insurers and financiers chose greed, irresponsible risk and personal enrichment over responsibility. Charged with oversight of our financial systems, regulatory agencies and Congress were reckless, ignorant, and arrogant—and then engaged in finger-pointing and spin, turning their lack of care into a lack of accountability. Anyone who really thinks the current crisis was not equally fueled by both political parties is biased beyond reason.

Our leaders can not be trusted to lead. Our teachers can not be trusted to teach. Our religious leaders can not be trusted to live by the principles they preach to us. Our journalists are unfair and biased. Our sports heroes cheat.

In the midst of this depression of trust, two presidential candidates are appealing, as they must, to citizens to trust them. But one candidate is the nominee of the same political party that has most recently presided over and fueled the collapse of trust. His supporters encourage irrational suspicion that his opponent is a secret Muslim, a friend of terrorists, and anti-American. The other candidate is a cipher, an unproven and untested leader who has yet to lead, and who has allowed his supporters to sow further distrust in the system to achieve victory. Is either candidate trustworthy?

All we can do, in October of 2008, is hope….and trust. But the nation’s trust has been abused and mismanaged for a very long time, and like fossil fuel, it cannot meet our vital long-term needs without planning, sacrifice, and care. And unlike fossil fuels, there are no alternatives.

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