Americans May Trust In God, But Not Government

By Lina Sawan

As the Arabs watch, with justified trepidation, how their efforts to change regimes and establish better lives unfold in the hands of those currently in charge; it may be helpful to consider trust issues ascending on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

Within three days of the announcement of Barack Obama that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan by American forces in an authorised operation, American officials had revised the original storyline and changed essential details. Obama has also announced that the eagerly-awaited photos of Bin Laden’s body, which we are told has been hurriedly buried at sea, will not be released.

Suspicions that the truth may never be revealed are spreading worldwide, and despite their determination to celebrate, even the American people are doubting that their government is coming clean.

It is easy to understand that the Americans distrust their government, including the President, after having exposed Bush’s colossal deceits about why the US needed to invest so much in wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. It is now official and common knowledge in the USA that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Americans continue to sacrifice men, women and their economy in complicated military conflicts that could have been avoided.  The Bush era was unashamedly proficient at dominating Congress and public opinion by spreading fear and terror of the “other”, an enemy that was supposedly beyond diffusing through diplomatic means. But as the costs are high and the rewards few, the American electorate has become more distrusting of its government, its financial institutions and media than ever before.

According to a public opinion survey conducted in April 2010, nearly 80 percent of Americans said they did not trust the government to do what is right, expressing an ever increasing level of distrust in Washington for half a century.

The Pew Research Centre survey found that only 22 percent of Americans could say that they trusted the government "just about always" or "most of the time". More than half of the American people “are frustrated “with the federal government, some are even” angry”.

Economic uncertainty, a highly partisan environment and overwhelming discontent with Congress and elected officials were all factors contributing to the current wave of public distrust, the report said. Surprisingly, or maybe not since this is a survey taken during Obama’s first term, more than half of the Republicans questioned  felt that the government presented a major threat to their personal freedom. Not many Democrats agreed with them.

The trend of retreating trust between people and government in America continues up to this day. In fact it dips by a remarkable rate in comparison to just one year ago. The Edelman Trust Barometer of 2011 finds that trust of banks, media and government has indeed fallen lower this year than ever before in America. While peoples increasingly trust that business will “do the right thing” in countries such as Brazil and China, along with the feeling that governments will also do what is right, that trust has fallen sharply for both business (-6%) and government (-8%)  in the USA. It dropped even further (-11%) when it came to trusting that the media would do the right thing.

The Barometer of 2011 also shows that the U.S is the only country to witness an across-the-board fall on all issues of trust in a decline that mirrors the distrust experienced during the 2009 worldwide financial crisis. It seems that Americans have not been able to recover their confidence in their financial institutions and their relationship with their leaders has continued to sour. BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India & China) are not suffering the same consequences with their peoples. In fact, they are all experiencing overall increases in trust.

It is not difficult to conclude that today few people in industrial countries distrust their governments as much as the Americans do theirs.  The reason for this unique and ever-increasing dissatisfaction in the U.S. may be related to the feeling that, whoever they elect, the Americans fail to see significant or valuable change in how their country is run. The people’s complaints are repeated throughout the years’ surveys. Areas of trouble listed by the 2010 Pew Survey have appeared as far back as 2000 in a study conducted by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In stark similarity, the latter also lists the people’s main reasons for distrusting their government as the “government’s waste and inefficiency, partisan bickering, special interests having too much influence, a lack of honesty and integrity among elected officials and high taxes.”

When Obama announced Bin Laden’s death, analysts predicted there would be a likely but unsustainable hike in his faltering popularity ratings. A CNN poll conducted in March 2010 had declared that less than half of the American voters approve of Obama’s performance at his job (46%), while 51% disapprove.

 Obama seems to have lost his grip on his people’s support sometime near mid-January of this year. If the events of the Middle East have played a major role in portraying him in the eyes of his public as a weak president who does not hammer the world with an iron fist like his predecessor, then maybe there is a lot to support the theory that the said assassination of Bin Laden is nothing more than a carefully-timed announcement designed to serve his re-election bid. 

Either way, Obama can surely rely on certain votes for a second term in the White House. Polls show that the Black American community has not given up on him and continues to support him and approve of his policies by an over-whelming majority of 90 percent.  Maybe African Americans have taken to heart Plato’s pronouncement that “the punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in the government, is to live under the government of worse men.”

– Lina Sawan is a Palestinian television producer and writer. She is known as the presenter of talk-shows and documentaries which deal with issues of social injustice in the Arab world. She is currently based in London.

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