In light of our Constitution Week (September 17-23), I would like to pull back some of the layers surrounding how we trust, and thereby choose, our leaders.
It is in the political rhetoric today that a leader must be or, at least be under, the guidance of a shrewdly talented marketer. (S)he must be presentable but not too stuffy, witty but not too fluffy, educated but not too pretentious, opinionated but not too contentious. Under the watchful eye of our media, potential leaders of our country must now sell themselves to us more thoroughly and personally than ever before. These politicians live much of their lives orchestrating a story they can market to a country of people who so desperately want someone to put their trust in.
But the figures show that we are not as trusting of our political leaders as we have been in the past. The most recent Gallup poll shows that Americans’ trust in the Legislative branch is at an all-time low. However, it also shows that though our trust in politicians has plummeted, our trust in “the American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system” has been at a consistently high level at 73 percent.
In a PEW research done in 1998 on Americans’ view of the government, 40 percent of those with distrust in government complained about the political leadership—believing that politicians are dishonest, selfish and too partisan.
The Harvard Kennedy School for Public Leadership published some research in 2009 showing that Americans are among the world’s most optimistic people when it comes to our belief in the potential of our government. We still hold the words of our founding fathers close to heart—that “the power under the Constitution will always be in the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and whenever it is executed contrary to their interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their servants can, and undoubtedly will, be recalled” (George Washington, Ibid., 29:311).
But recent reports show that “77 percent of Americans say they ‘feel things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track’ in this country.”
This leads to some questions about the qualities of trust and the trusted. Do we trust the qualities that we identify with most or the qualities with which we find admirable? Do we trust people who seem to share our values, intellect, and background? Is it the influx of disparaging and vituperative media in our lives that makes us distrustful of our politicians? Is it the conditions of our environment that make us prone to trust? Or do we simply tend to trust in our government when comfortable in the happy, warm cocoon of a flourishing economy? And most importantly, how do we come to terms with trusting an individual so desirous of power as to put himself through the dehumanizing process that is American Politics?
With great freedom comes great responsibility. Appropriately referred to as the Living Constitution (new window), it is always changing with the regime and those who choose to participate. When we are active in the legislative processes, we can dissolve distrust by collectively petitioning and making demands on our government. In honor of our Constitution week, let’s remember our participatory duties as free individuals in this experiment to see if man can govern himself.