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Why we don't trust the government

Apr 27, 2015

People have been looking down on politicians since the beginning of time.

There’s an old vaudeville skit in which an old-style southern senator gives an, emotionally wrought speech and then announces, “well, them’s my views, and if you don’t like’ em … well, I can change ‘em.”

Yet until a few years ago, there was also a feeling that however wrongheaded or perhaps personally selfish, both parties and most elected officials cared deeply about the country and its people.

That was the case when I was growing up. To an extent, I think it remained true through the end of the Cold War, about 25 years ago.

But it is no longer true today.

There’s a new kind of cynicism, perhaps especially as applies to state government. Voters think those running things are a bunch of incompetent, lying crooks. We see this reflected in polls, and less scientifically, in comments on the Internet.

Take Proposal 1, for example, the amendment to raise the sales tax, mainly to fix the roads.

Most key leaders in both parties support it.

But polls show it is likely to be defeated by an army of angry voters who want the roads fixed, but don’t trust those asking to do it.

For example, there’s a column in the online magazine Bridge by former Michigan Treasurer Doug Roberts.

Roberts, who served five governors of both parties, had a reputation for competence and integrity.

In his column, he says “I’ve come to a very clear conclusion that Proposal 1 should pass,” and that the state would be better off if it does, but beneath his column are a series of mainly jeering, contemptuous comments from readers coming both right and left.

A commenter called “Phil” writes:

“This proposal reeks ... I actually think the authors of this proposal think we the voters are stupid ... There is no public trust of our elected officials ... Vote no.”

Another called “Donna” says:

“If we need money for roads so desperately, let the legislature vote to increase our taxes. Don’t expect us to do it.”

But in fact the Legislature refused and failed to do so.

Despite being urged to do so by a Republican governor, his fellow Republicans in the Legislature wouldn’t act to fix the roads.

However, they rushed a bill through the state Senate in one day last week that reduces benefits to those catastrophically injured in car accidents, something medical professionals and the victims themselves say would be a disaster.

They are doing this not because of any economic crisis.

There is plenty of money to take care of those severely disabled, but because one special interest group, the insurance lobby, wants them to cut their benefits, and that same lobby has contributed heavily to their campaigns.

Is it any wonder that the voters are cynical?

This week, the state Senate is neglecting real issues galore to ram through a so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is designed to allow discrimination against gay people.

The governor has already said he’ll veto this bill.

There are people out there arguing that we should go to a part-time Legislature, or maybe even abolish it entirely.

When you look at the record, it really isn’t hard to imagine why.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.