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Skepticism of Government: What It Means for America’s Future

This post was written by Stephen McKerihan, a student at Covenant College.

Societal trends, despite their apparent triviality and impermanent nature, can often have a significant impact on our mindsets and the way we react to the world. It is when these reactions become habit that they are ingrained into our attitudes and lead to a complete change in the culture. We can see this clearly in the recent development of American pessimism toward the direction of the country and the integrity of the government.

A new poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC news indicates a mere 31 percent of Americans are optimistic about our system of government, compared to the 29 percent who are pessimistic. Even when compared with the periods during and after the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal (which are generally categorized as being saturated with negativity), the statistics suggest there is a stronger sense of pessimism toward our government now than at any time in recent history. This depressed outlook, though definitely not new, is growing at an alarming rate.

Source: White House/Pete Souza

For every change in culture there is a cause—and in this case, I believe there are many.

First is the economy, being the source (whether it should be or not) of most people’s happiness, comfort and welfare. Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, our economic system has been plagued by instability. This uncertainty is often blamed on the government, which plays a central role in the economy. It is the only legal producer of money and is the “great stabilizer” in the case of a depression. So after a government shutdown and near default that only exacerbated this economic uncertainty, it’s no wonder Americans are becoming upset.

Additionally, the media has played a role by further inflaming these situations. A story becomes newsworthy by containing conflict and drama, so the “spin” of mainstream news is often very polarized. When people follow an issue they believe that they have to have an absolutist opinion on it, because the media often makes it feel like a life or death situation. Once the person is “hooked” and becomes a regular consumer, the party lines become apparent in that person, who now lives in a world where compromise is not option. This intense partisanship eventually leads to ideological zeal and hostility towards different groups, of which the recent gridlock and government shutdown are products. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that has the potential to undermine the foundations of this country.

But American pessimism is not propagated by domestic factors alone. Scandalous revelations, such as the information leaked by Edward Snowden, have damaged our image internationally and left Americans wondering if our own government has become the enemy. The exposure of these surveillance programs, have made people (especially younger generations) skeptical about whether their best interests are actually being protected by the government.

In the end, all of the dysfunction, mistakes and dishonesty have fundamentally shaken our confidence in the government of the United States.

But what can we say about this resentment and skepticism?

Well, for one, the irresponsibility and selfishness of politicians, the media and citizens are hindering our ability to solve problems, which has led to frustration, disunion and distrust. Second, we know that this sentiment is especially pertinent in younger generations. And finally, this trend is dangerous to our country’s welfare—something needs to change. Distrust in government fundamentally undermines our security and stability—the very things that government is meant to provide. But at the same time, we cannot ignore the major faults that lie within our system.

[pullquote]     We must confront the dysfunction and polarization that has compromised our government.[/pullquote]

So, the way forward is multi-faceted. In part, we must seek to hold our government accountable and ensure that it is governing lawfully, with the long-term interests of the people as its guidepost.

But we must also confront the dysfunction and polarization that has compromised our government. One way, is to address each issue on an individual level and evaluate why we choose the positions that we do. Once we have identified and eliminated external factors (like media bias) from our decisions, a transformation will take place. If constituents hold more reasonable positions, their representatives will follow suit, and we will start to see real, healthy progress.

Pessimism stems from dissatisfaction. And by improving the morality, functionality and productivity of our government, we can maintain our status as proud Americans in a secure, stable and thriving country.