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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And we'll be exploring this issue of distrust all week. Let's get some historical perspective now. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports the roots of government distrust go deep.

ARI SHAPIRO: It's tempting to think of people like Glenn Beck as an expression of this particular moment in America.

(Soundbite of "The Glenn Beck Program")

Mr. GLENN BECK (Radio/TV Host): I don't believe in the promise of government. Have they fixed the economy today?

SHAPIRO: Beck has about two million viewers a night. Compare that to the estimated 30 million radio listeners that Father Charles Coughlin had in the 1930s.

Father CHARLES COUGHLIN (Radio Personality): They're not even Americans, these so-called Democrats and Republicans.

SHAPIRO: And the history of distrust in government goes back much farther even than that.

Professor MARC HETHERINGTON (Political Science, Vanderbilt University): When you think about the beginning of the country, you know, it was all about throwing off the shackles of the English monarchy.

SHAPIRO: Political science professor Marc Hetherington of Vanderbilt University is author of "Why Trust Matters."

Prof. HETHERINGTON: We set up institutions that were designed to cut down on people imposing their will on ordinary folks. Given those circumstances, it's not surprising that we've had a legacy of distrust or mistrust of government ever since the beginning.

SHAPIRO: This theme fills the Federalist Papers. The very first line by Alexander Hamilton refers to an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government.

Philip Zelikow of the University of Virginia edited the book "Why People Don't Trust Government."

Mr. PHILIP ZELIKOW (Editor, "Why People Don't Trust Government): Americans do have a historic suspicion of government tyranny. They keep reinventing for each generation what they mean by that term, because it's not as if these historic traditions are passed down in the biological DNA, or in the air we breathe.

SHAPIRO: The federal government has completely transformed since the country's founding. So, Zelikow argues it's impossible to draw a straight line from the Federalist Papers to a present-day phenomenon like the Tea Party movement.

In the 1800s, the government was too small to regulate the economy or national health care. Back then, people didn't even expect the government to give everyone a free education.

Mr. ZELIKOW: And so as the expectations have gone up for government - really very much in the last 50 to 70 years - government performance naturally often seems to fall short.

SHAPIRO: Zelikow says one constant trend is that citizens like the politicians who are closest to them. That's why local officials generally poll better than state politicians, and state better than federal. Americans distrust far-off, elite cabals. And so for decades, political candidates have run for office against Washington and all it stands for.

Mr. ROSS PEROT (Former Independent Presidential Candidate): There is a whole lot I don't know much about up there in Washington.

Senator JON TESTER (Democrat, Montana): Let me tell you, I'm a farmer. I always will be a farmer.

Mr. BILL FRIST (Former Republican Senator, Tennessee): I am the outsider. You know, as you travel...

President BARACK OBAMA: I know that I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington.

Ms. SARAH PALIN: Oh, man, it's so obvious that I'm a Washington outsider, and...

SHAPIRO: That was Ross Perot, Jon Tester, Bill Frist, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin explaining why they deserve Americans' trust. When trust in government is high, those in power can pass sweeping initiatives, like President Johnson's Great Society program. But distrust can be valuable, too, says Harvard Professor Joseph Nye.

Professor JOSEPH NYE (Harvard University): It's important in a democracy for people to say, well, yeah. I'm going to keep an eye on you. And if you have complete trust and it's not warranted, then people in power can get away with all sorts of things.

SHAPIRO: Trust in government was very high when President Johnson said he was withdrawing from Vietnam while he was, in fact, escalating. And trust was high leading up to Watergate.

University of Maryland Professor Eric Uslaner says the arc of trust in government closely tracks the American economy.

Professor ERIC USLANER (University of Maryland): When was trust in government high? At the end of World War II, we had an economic boom. The next time trust in government was really high was in the 1960s, when we had another economic boom.

SHAPIRO: So if government officials want to regain the public's trust today, they might listen to advice from another past president whose campaign slogan was: It's the economy, stupid.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: See how Americans have viewed their government from the birth of the nation to the latest poll at our Web site: npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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