John Pelissero (@1pel) is a senior scholar in government ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and a professor emeritus of political science from Loyola University Chicago.
In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, an important task for national reconciliation is to begin to restore citizens’ trust in their national government. Confidence in our national leaders and institutions has been rocked by a steady stream of lies, misinformation, partisan rancor and unethical behavior by political leaders.
Trust in our federal government is at a 20-year low, according to the recent annual governance survey by Gallup (Saad 2020). The data demonstrate a decline in confidence that the national government can solve problems in either the domestic or international arenas. In 1998, a bare majority (51%) of those surveyed by Gallup said that they had a “great deal” or “fair” amount of confidence that the federal government could solve domestic problems. By 2020 that trust level had dropped to only 41%. The proportion of the public who trust the federal governments’ handling of international issues dropped from 69% in 1998 to 48% in 2020.
The Gallup surveys demonstrate that the public holds more trust in local government (71%) and state government (60%) than in the executive (43%) and legislative (33%) branches of the national government. “Current trust levels in public candidates and officials, the executive branch and the legislative branch, are near their all-time lows,” (Saad, 2020).
The country’s deep partisan divide also harms trust in the national government. Candidates running for office often mock their opponents and create distorted images of the opposition party. The president of the U.S. publicly criticizes, even ridicules, government agencies and employees (including many appointed by him). He treats the federal government with disdain, ignoring the fact that he is the head of the federal government. Democrats and Republicans in Congress appear to be in a chronic divide that hobbles good governance and promotes government gridlock.
What can be done? Here are three ideas that may lead to renewed trust in our national government and contribute toward national political reconciliation:
1. Cease attacking public servants
In the U.S. national government, there are thousands of elected and appointed members of the legislative and executive branches of government who come and go with elections and party changes of power. Their roles, from president to Congress to cabinet leaders to judges, are constitutionally and legally defined to lead critical parts of the national government. They may often disagree with one another, but the increasing instances of personal attacks on other leaders and agencies of government undermines trust in individuals and the offices they temporarily occupy.
The backbone of our national government is the nearly 2.1 million civil servants (OPM, 2019). The civil service was created in 1883 to ensure a nonpartisan and meritorious cadre of personnel who would carry out the duties of the national government without attention to, nor influence by, partisan political actors. Presidents and cabinet secretaries will come and go, but the civil service continues in place. These are people who chose a career to serve the public interest and to promote the common good of our nation—very important ethical standards. One may not agree with every decision made by a federal agency or its civil servants, but respecting the important role they play in administering the national government is critical to fostering trust in government.
Moreover, the 1.3 million active duty military, from enlisted women and men to the top brass, have chosen to serve and defend our national security. Labeling members of the armed forces as “losers” (Goldberg 2020) or “dopes” (Leonnig and Rucker, 2020) demeans their vital roles in our defense and diminishes their sacrifices to our country. There is honor in ethical public service and we should value the overarching professionalism and competence of civilian and military public servants.
2. Promote an informed and educated citizenry
To paraphrase from Hana Callaghan’s book on Voting for Ethics (2020), an informed citizen is an ethical citizen. As members of the body politic, we wish to be educated about public issues and policy choices. We depend upon our political leaders to share information—widely and factually—about our government, the problems facing society (e.g. pandemic), and the basis for proposed solutions. Civics education is essential to trust in government. If citizens are not informed or do not access valid and reliable sources of information, democracy suffers as uninformed citizens render choices on candidates running for office or policy referenda. Governments should consider partnering with schools and colleges to promote continuous learning about government and public policy issues for all citizens.
3. Recognize that truth matters in a democracy
Truth is important to trust, which must be earned by each public official. As a country, we should not enable, support, or disseminate untruths, misinformation, and lies. Nor should we remain silent or fail to hold accountable those political leaders who systematically communicate falsehoods. This has become increasingly more challenging to manage with social media and websites that circulate false, misleading, and baseless information. As a nation, we can do more to openly share facts and data on policy and issues. Giving citizens greater access to the truth will advance democratic ideals, including fairness, justice, and equal rights. It will allow citizens to hold elected officials accountable and to make ethical choices when evaluating political leaders and candidates.
Restoring trust in government should be an ethical goal for national political reconciliation.
Callaghan, Hana S. (2020). Voting for Ethics (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University). https://www.scu.edu/voting-for-ethics/
Goldberg, Jeffrey (2020). “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’, The Atlantic (September 3) https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/trump-americans-who-died-at-war-are-losers-and-suckers/615997/
Leonnig, Carol D. and Philip Rucker (2020) “‘You’re a bunch of dopes and babies’: Inside Trump’s stunning tirade against generals,” The Washington Post (January 17). https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/youre-a-bunch-of-dopes-and-babies-inside-trumps-stunning-tirade-against-generals/2020/01/16/d6dbb8a6-387e-11ea-bb7b-265f4554af6d_story.html
Office of Personnel Management (OPM). (2019) http://www.fedscope.opm.gov (March).
Saad, Lydia. (2020) “Trust in federal government’s competence remains low.” Gallup (September 29). https://news.gallup.com/poll/321119/trust-federal-government-competence-remains-low.aspx