New Series: Trust In Government

This week, NPR begins a series of reports about the country's changing attitude toward the government and elected officials. Called "Trust In Government," it's being done in cooperation with the Pew Research Center. Host Liane Hansen talks with Philip Zelikow, White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia, about declining public trust in government.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This week, NPR begins a series of reports about the country's changing attitude toward the government and elected officials. Called Trust in Government, it's being done in cooperation with the Pew Research Center. Coming up, how public distrust of government changed a lawmaking process in California.

But first, to Philip Zelikow. He's a professor of history and an author of a book on why Americans don't trust government. He's at the University of Virginia and we reached him by phone. Welcome to the program.

Professor PHILIP ZELIKOW (History, University of Virginia): Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: Given your perspective as someone who had studied presidencies from that historical standpoint, what do you think contributes to the culture of cynicism that seems to be ever-present in our politics?

Prof. ZELIKOW: Well, American attitudes towards government have gone up and down over the generations. What's new though is that the expectations we have from government have gotten a whole lot larger. Government has invaded economic management and the management of social relations to unprecedented degrees. And so, expectations of what government is supposed to do are way higher. And meanwhile, attitudes towards performance are pretty low, especially during a period of economic downturn like this.

Also, to a lot of Americans, government feels more distant. They feel further alienated from it. They don't feel they understand how decisions are made. And so, both trust is breaking down and the sense of responsiveness is breaking down.

HANSEN: An overall question: Isn't public skepticism necessary in a democracy?

Prof. ZELIKOW: Well, in fact, our particular democracy was kind of founded on public skepticism. But to put that in context, the founders were not so much skeptical about government per se as they were skeptical about concentrations of power. That was what they equated with tyranny. So, what they do is manage and limit the power of government by separating and dividing it and keeping it close.

HANSEN: Given that Americans' trust in its government has gone, you know, up and down probably more times than the stock market, is there a general way perhaps to say what effects there could be both long and short term of the public's lack of trust in government today?

Prof. ZELIKOW: Yeah. I think the answer to the so what question is, well, it matters if you actually want and need broad citizen engagement in what government is trying to do. If people increasingly feel that their lives are being driven by things that they don't understand and can't affect, they're going to react to that. And there can be healthy reactions to that and toxic reactions to that.

And we've seen some illustrations here and there around the world. I think it's important that Americans feel that they do have control over the basic communities in which they live and that government is creating a framework that manages these global forces, but within that framework, local communities have a lot of scope to figure out how they want to order their lives.

HANSEN: Philip Zelikow is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. He's also the author of a book on why Americans don't trust government. Thank you very much.

Prof. ZELIKOW: You're most welcome.

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