“You know you cannot trust them
They know they can’t trust you.”
—Steve Goodman (Jimmy Buffett)
“Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?”
The scandal at the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department spying on the Associated Press came at the same time that I have been reading Moises Naim’s excellent book The End of Power.
Naim does a terrific job in tying together the complicated forces that are causing the end of power to occur.
Naim points out that there has been a long standing decline in people who trust government. He cites an observation from Jessica Matthews, who said that every two years since 1958, the American National Election studies group asked Americans, “Do you trust the government in Washington to do what is right, all or most of the time?”
Until the mid 1960’s, over 75 percent of Americans answered yes. By 1980, it had gone down to 25 percent and stayed close to that percentage ever since.
When John F. Kennedy said in 1961, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he reflected the national mood.
When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 saying that, “government is not the solution to our problems, government is our problem,” he reflected the national mood, too.
So what happened in between the short period in between?
People at the highest levels of government thought they could put one over on the American people.
The American people were smart enough to catch them in a lie.
The 2008 economic crisis showed that common sense resided on Main Street and not on Wall Street. Washington chose to bail out their powerful allies and big contributors on Wall Street instead.
The IRS and Justice Department scandals, and the clumsy way the Obama administration has handled them, goes back to the same Washington problem. People in Washington expect us to “take their word for it.” Then we find out that a detail or two was left out of the original explanation. Then a few more after that. Then maybe one or two more.
Thus, we trust Washington less when we affirm that we’ve been lied to. Again.
I voted for President Obama twice. I voted for him the first time because I thought he would clean up Wall Street. Instead, he sold out to the same big money insiders, like Dr. Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, who got us in the mess to begin with.
I wanted to pay Obama back for fooling me last election, but I didn’t like Mitt Romney. Thus, I voted for Obama again. Too many Americans are viewing elections as a process of choosing the lesser of evils. Or deciding who will lie to them least.
There is a simple remedy to the problem for Washington. Shoot straight, even when you screw up. No one ever tries that. They think they are smarter than people on Main Street and won’t get caught.
If Nixon had told the truth about Watergate, the scandal would have ended quickly. If Bill Clinton, or John Edwards, Mark Sanford, or the scores of other politicians caught in sex scandals had immediately confessed their sins, I suspect we may have forgiven and moved on.
The cover-up, not the sin, is what the American public will not forgive. Why can’t someone in Washington learn from 40 years of history and polling data?
I consider Ronnie Van Zant, who founded Lynyrd Skynyrd and wrote “Sweet Home Alabama,” to be a sociological genius and political philosopher who made profound statements buried in the lyrics of classic Southern rock songs.
Ronnie died in a plane crash in 1977. Thus, he never lived to see Watergate is still bothering us, in a subliminal but profound way. It was part of the continuing reason that Americans have lost faith in Washington.
In a way, Washington has gotten away with it. Saying things like “too big to fail,” “weapons of mass destruction” and “I did not have sex with that woman” have allowed insiders to hold onto power.
But each time we were lied to, it has caused us to trust Washington less and less.
Moises Naim did a great job of explaining “the end of power.”
But when it is said and done, a lot of the power loss in Washington has come from self-inflicted wounds.
And self-inflicted lies.
Don McNay is a settlement planning consultant based in Richmond, KY and New Orleans. He has written four best-selling books, including Life Lessons from the Lottery