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Political trust and the public good

November 6, 2019

“Salus populi suprema lex esto” — the good of the people should be the supreme law. For you Latin scholars, you’ll know this is a quotation from Marcus Tullius Cicero. The maxim is so famous that John Locke used a variation of the quotation in his Second Treatise on Government and the phrase is even the motto of the state of Missouri. Although what is good for the people is naturally a judgment call from citizen to citizen, I have reached the conclusion that most politicians in Washington, D.C. have completely lost sight of this principle — and you and I are paying the price for this today.

 

For a republic to function, it must have the confidence of the governed. Though we may disagree with the momentary decisions that leaders make, confidence in the system of government must be there in order for it to survive long-term. This is not a uniquely American problem either. On a recent trip to Northern Ireland, I saw this matter firsthand. As Parliament seems to be oblivious to the citizens they supposedly represent, the British public looks on with disgust at the governing class in London, which doesn’t really want out of the European Union. Much like in the United Kingdom, the governing class in Washington, D.C. is still in shock with Donald Trump’s election as president and has never really come to grips with the fact that there are large areas of the United States that are enduring hardship as the economy is undergoing a fundamental transformation before our very eyes.

 

Increasingly, we are becoming a nation that is divided in many different ways. Rather than divisions based upon region though, the differences are becoming increasingly marked by a rural/urban split. To make things even more complicated, this rural/urban divide is often times seen as a generational split with younger, more mobile and affluent voters residing in urban areas and a graying, more economically impoverished populace, located in rural America. In many ways, these two groups do not understand one another and all of us are increasingly viewing political reality in very different ways and drawing dramatically different conclusions.

 

Playing into this same phenomenon is the lack of trust in media outlets (present august publication excluded). Long gone are the days in which people trusted what they read or heard in the news. Part of the problem is that we have reporters today who pale in comparison to the reporters of old. While local reporters still are quite conscientious and most do a good job at impartially reporting the news, the national media outlets have become downright partisan on both sides of the political aisle since Donald Trump’s election. My experience with national reporters is that the younger ones for the most part have extremely limited background knowledge about politics and, worse yet, they have a political agenda in their reporting, rather than reporting straight facts. Reporters and their editors are doing little to assuage people’s distrust in them either. Indeed, the reporting seems to have become even more overtly partisan in the last six months. The Washington Post’s temporary and infamous description of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as an “austere religious scholar” increases distrust of media outlets.

 

Yet another problem we have is social media. I remember being in graduate school during the 1990s, when the Internet (we used to call it the “World Wide Web” back in the day) was hailed by many political science professors as bringing a great new day to the American political stage. The thought was that a world of information at our fingertips would help us to hold government leaders accountable. Well, now that I have caused you to question my chosen profession, what many at the time missed was that there may be something known as too much information to the point that it becomes difficult to make reasoned choices and come to logical conclusions. Another thing that social media has done is to shorten all of our attention spans as well.

 

All of this added together has led to mass distrust of government in the past decade. This reality slapped me in the face back in September. As Hurricane Dorian was devastating the Bahamas, a Finnish colleague of mine asked me one day what I was hearing from Charleston in the immediate days before Dorian’s approach. My friend mentioned to me that he had heard that Governor McMaster had ordered a mandatory evacuation of the coastline. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “well, that doesn’t mean a whole lot.” My Finnish friend gave me a stunned look and said, “but it’s a mandatory evacuation.” I then explained to him the theoretical meaning of “mandatory” vs. the reality. Still completely bumfuzzled, he said but the government is telling you to go for your own good. At that point, I began to realize how jaded I have become about government. I can still question the conclusions that government officials may draw, but most of them do have our best interests in mind.

 

So, what’s the answer? I have no easy answers. However, perhaps we could breathe deeply and step back for a moment and realize that we still live in wonderful nation that is blessed in so many ways. Another suggestion would be to be as charitable as possible to those with whom we disagree. Yet another option is to put down your phone, tablet and all other electronic devices and take a walk before firing off the next social media response, etc. One of the things that my time in Finland has taught me is that compromise is not a dirty word. Indeed, had our ancestors not been willing to compromise among themselves, then there would be arguably be no United States.

If all of this comes across as pointing a finger, remember that whenever someone points a finger, there are three others pointing back at them.  

 

Dr. Scott Buchanan is a professor of political science, whose research focuses on Southern politics. He is currently teaching far from his Palmetto State home at the University of Helsinki as a Fulbright Fellowship recipient.

 

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