The Collapse of Political Trust = The Collapse of Expectations

In his interesting analysis about The Collapse of Political Trust, Jonah Lehrer makes the following observation:

And this returns us to the present dysfunction in Washington. If trust is about the distribution of rewards – about learning to expect bonuses from others – then it’s going to be a lot harder to share those rewards in an age of scarcity and deficits. For the first time in decades, congresspeople aren’t trading pork barrel projects and tax breaks – they’re negotiating steep budget cuts. Those cuts might be necessary, but they’re aren’t going to excite the caudate or generate that requisite burst of “social juice.” The traditional means of developing trust among Congresspeople have disappeared.

In making this observation, he’s overlooked something else: developing trust through horse trading of patronage not only depends upon the availability of resources, but also on the expectation that the end result will actually benefit you or your constituencies.  That’s especially true of the Republicans.

If we look at the long term positions of conservatives, we see an aversion to government action and control.   Although people today see that as a given, that hasn’t always been the case.  In the past conservative legislators and executives (especially conservative Democrats, today almost an oxymoron) garnered all kinds of benefits for their constituents, especially public works projects.  It was just the way things were done.

What changed dramatically in the 1960’s and 1970’s was the nature of government action.  We started to see the wholesale expansion of government activities such as the EPA, OSHA and the like, which conservative business people (especially small business people) saw as inimical to their interests.  The course of the tax code and the legal environment of the financial industry only add to the irritation.  The longer this has gone on, the easier it is to sell people on the idea that any government action is inimical to their interests, thus the Tea Party agenda.  (We can chart this course of action with social issues as well.)

That leads us to what almost brought the debt ceiling dance to a halt: increasing tax revenues.  There’s no way that our national indebtedness will decrease without these (and it’s more than probable that it won’t with them.)  But Republicans see any tax increase as only benefiting their enemies: those at the top of government, the financial industry and the legal one.  So they’ve gotten to the point where their interests are better served by bringing the house down rather than advancing a solution in a “rational” way.  So we forewent a tax increase, although the expiration of the Bush tax cuts extension means that the clock is running very fast on that.  (That is, if the gutless wonder we have in the White House doesn’t lose his nerve again, as he did in 2010…)

Liberals always work under the assumption that conservatives are blind to the growing inequity of income and wealth in our country.  I don’t think so, especially since most conservatives (the rank and file, not our leadership) are in the group that’s being left behind.  Part of the problem is that most conservatives are too ashamed to admit that, the way the system is rigged these days, they can’t make it to the top, even if that inability isn’t really their fault, but reflects changes in the social system.  But until liberals figure out a way to advance things in this country without immediately and endlessly lining their own pockets (and that’s unlikely) we’re stuck in a political rut that won’t get filled or paved (just like our road system) any time soon.

Contracting resources do make it harder to come to agreement, as they did in the debt ceiling crisis and will again.  But there are other things at work to bedevil our political system, and they’re not going away any time soon, either.

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