By Jim Miller
The latest Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey of Americans’ trust in their federal government released last fall unfortunately contained no surprises. It found that only 19 percent say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time,” down seven points since the previous January. This matched the August 2011 low survey results, which were influenced by the debt ceiling standoff.
When I saw this, I had a mixed reaction. On one level it quantified the beliefs of many, me included, that the federal government, particularly Congress, has become virtually incapacitated. The fact that the trust level has gone from miserable to worse is even more disturbing, but hardly surprising. Yet, I will admit to feeling a little smug as well because similar surveys consistently show that Americans generally have a considerably more positive impression of their local governments. Many cities also survey their residents, and most find they are doing quite well in meeting expectations. That same Pew Research survey found that the public has a higher view of federal agencies and federal employees, which is a typical finding by such surveys. Indeed, respondents frequently say that while they hold government in low esteem, they simultaneously see their individual elected representatives as performing considerably better.
Nonetheless, this cannot diminish the overall negative impression many have of their federal government, and the consequences that brings. I wonder, for example, to what degree all levels of government are tarnished by the public’s view of its federal government.
On the somewhat positive side, the Pew survey did find that young people remain more positive about the federal government than older people: 29 percent of those younger than 30 said they trust the government “always” or “most of the time”—nearly double the percentage of older age groups (16 percent).
Still, although that may be an acceptable average in baseball, it is hardly an aspirational goal when measuring trust in government.
A recent Washington Post article by political science professors Richard L. Fox and Jennifer L. Lawless is even more disturbing. The authors reported on their survey of more than 4,000 high school and college students asking, among other things, about their career aspirations. I was shocked to find that only 11 percent said they would someday consider running for political office.
Equally alarming were their responses when asked to select between four career options—business owner, teacher, salesperson, or mayor—assuming that each position paid the same amount of money. Nine out of 10 chose a career other than mayor as their first choice.
Nearly 40 percent reported that mayor would be their least-desired job. I quickly lost the smugness I had felt from the Pew survey results. Indeed, one wonders how President Kennedy’s call to public service would have been received by today’s young people.
These findings should strike every local government official squarely between the eyes. It may be that there will always be candidates for mayor or city council, but that is not the measure.
We need elected officials with the courage and conviction to act for the common good and who are not directed by the expedient or politically popular. If elected office is seen as a joke or something not worth the personal effort or cost, we all lose.
Fox and Lawless, the authors of the Washington Post article, hit the nail on the head: “Politicians need to think seriously about how they do business. When our elected officials cheer failed policies, shut down the government … and refuse to do their jobs, they engage in more than hyperbole and hyper-partisanship. They damage the public’s short-term sense of political trust and confidence; and, in the long term, they undermine future generations’ faith in the system and aspirations to be a part of it.” Change only a few of the words and this quote would equally apply to local government.
Incivility or lack of respect for the responsibilities of local elected office not only has an immediate effect on the community’s well-being, but if the Washington Post article is accurate, jeopardizes its long-term health as well. Yes, in general, such behavior is rare in Minnesota.
Nevertheless, what better time than the present to do a little soul-searching?
Jim Miller is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1205.
Read the May-June 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine
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