progressive reform requires trust in government

I’d be willing to bet that any climate change bill Congress passes this year will be an incremental improvement, but far from satisfactory. Likewise for health care. Not only will these bills have too little impact; they will also cost too much because corporate interests will have been bought off. Health and environmental reform could be accomplished more cheaply with more radical strategies, such as a single-payer health system and a straightforward carbon tax.

This situation is causing a lot of hand-wringing and calls for procedural reform, such as ending the Senate’s filibuster rule. I think I’m for that, but I have a somewhat different view of how progressive change may unfold.

For me, the basic issue is that Americans deeply distrust the federal government. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, when the top tax rate was over 90% and each new Democratic administration took on bold new domestic challenges, most Americans said they generally trusted the federal government to do the right thing. That has not been true since the 1970s, when the tide turned in a conservative direction. Campaign and lobbying money do frustrate clean reform efforts, but it’s also a big obstacle that Americans are fundamentally skeptical that the government can do a reasonable job. (This is the trend from American National Election Studies since they began in 1958:)

Some people (e.g., Thomas Frank, Paul Krugman) think that Americans distrust the government because of corporate and conservative propaganda. I tend to think, in contrast, that people know what their government is like from direct personal experience. Media coverage may be biased, but people aren’t so easily fooled. On the basis of their own experience, they have formed a negative view of government.

This wasn’t George W. Bush’s doing; in fact, one of the biggest temporary increases in trust occurred during his first couple of years in office (mainly thanks to Osama bin Laden). Bush didn’t deserve the trust he received from 2001-4, and Democrats were right to criticize his policies. But because Americans started with a very low baseline level of trust in the government as a whole, they didn’t attribute all of its problems to Bush or to his party. As trust fell, so did fundamental confidence that the federal government could handle any essential challenges.

It is certainly true that Americans deeply distrust corporations today and are open to government regulation–in the abstract. But whenever the issue becomes an ambitious government-run alternative to corporate markets, Americans get nervous. That is the context for policymaking in the early Obama years. There are powerful crosswinds.

If Congress could somehow pass bold, efficient legislation that really worked, that might restore trust. I think progressive members of Congress should continue to press for strategies like single-payer and a carbon tax. Procedural reforms should be on the table, too. But I wouldn’t depend on either of those approaches. Instead, I’d look for incremental steps that restore trust and that can build momentum. The more the Administration can involve Americans in both policymaking and actual public work, the better the chances for rebuilding trust.

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