Food for Thought: Is Our Mistrust in the Government Making The Problem Worse?

Meheresh Yeditha, Co-Editor-in-Chief

It’s no secret that Americans have a very fundamental aversion to the federal government and the bureaucracy that comes with it. Modern politics has become defined as that of fundamental mistrust of the federal government, and as a result pinning almost all problems that arise while they are in office on them, regardless of whether or not they played a role. Politicians are viewed as “crooks”, “liars”, “thieves”, and much worse. Polls show that as of 2010, only about 19% of Americans trust the federal government all or most of the time (, a figure that has surely declined since due to continued Congressional gridlock and the Edward Snowden leaks. The suspicion of the federal government has become so overwhelming that both major parties have incorporated anti-government statements into their rhetoric for the purposes of common appeal, despite the expressed purpose of political parties to control government for their own purposes. Yet what effect has this mistrust had on politics? Has it played a part in the deterioration of the American political atmosphere?

Politicians had occasionally always been referred to as “crooks” and “cheats”, but after the Watergate Scandal and the subsequent plummeting of confidence in the government, a politician has been regarded as one of the least honorable professions in the United States. Politicians are depicted in media and common culture as people who infringe upon and take away rights and fail to help those who need it, hurting all of those around them. With this general kind of scrutiny, the question then arises: why go into politics at all? Those who belong in government to make public policy and shape the course of human events have begun to generally turn away from government because of the extremely negative stigma attached to politicians. Moreover, the prospect of attracting media scrutiny of everything one does by a culture looking to capitalize on political gaffes is not an attractive prospect either. From a moral standpoint, most do not feel comfortable getting down in the “mud” of Washington at all.

Even the salary plays a role in this phenomenon. It is common knowledge that many of the less prominent Congressmen are often forced to sleep and reside in their own office either because in many cases they lacked the funds to both maintain a house in their sending district and a residence in Washington, D.C., while others share residences with other people. Although it’s still a far cry from the struggle of many lower-class Americans, such conditions can take their toll on legislators and their ability to govern effectively. What’s more is that many other high-end jobs, such as a high ranking employee of a large firm or even an executive of a nonprofit, can result in a significantly higher payout and far less work than being a member of the body that governs the most important military, political, and economic entity in the world. And although Congressional salary has been raised several times over the last several years, Congress’ pay has actually been shrinking when adjusted for inflation.

What this amounts to is a rather discouraging scenario. People capable of representing citizens and constituting a dynamic leadership in Congress may reconsider becoming a part of the government due to its relatively low salary compared to positions that are far less important and entail less work. After all, who wants to earn less for more? The only people who would come to Congress would be those who thirsted for power but did not necessarily require the salary: those who were wealthy or influential beforehand, leading to an overrepresentation of the American wealthy at the expense of those who are less well-off. This overrepresentation of the rich in influential elected positions is obvious: members of Congress are, on average, about 14 times wealthier than the average American. This skewering of representation greatly hinders the democratic process and has a massive potential for misuse – that is the usage of government to assist the rich at the expense of the poor. The described scenario has historical precedent: in the American Gilded Age of the 1800’s in which nearly all representatives in Congress were fantastically wealthy – and as a result passed pro-business legislation that inflated the fortunes of the rich to heights never seen before or since in American history while the rest of America worked in substandard conditions and earned pennies for their hard work.

Americans know that the representation is imbalanced, and many are working to fix the problem of representation. Activists are now attempting to seek out candidates and politicians who are Washington outsiders and can work to make a change in the increasing economic, income, social, and political gap. After all, the reason the Gilded Age ended was because people arose in a grassroots movement, the Progressive Movement, to institute reform in government and to make it better represent the people. But could this ever happen today? Why would any intelligent person want to go into government with the overwhelmingly negative aura that surrounds it today? And so the cycle continues. It is all simply a loop, and all of it is catalyzed by the extremely negative stigma that permeates the very mention of the word “Washington.”

Just some food for thought.