Getting Americans to Believe in Their Government Again

State Sen. Nita Rinehart
Rinehart, a 1990 graduate of the UW law school who was running for governor but dropped out of the race in the summer, thinks local government is where people can connect to their elected leaders, gain some understanding and even trust what is going on.

"The closer you get to the process, the more respect you have for government," says the state senator. "On the state level, people can get more involved and see how a legislature works, how complex the issues are. In local government, you can have personal relationships with people. We aren't as removed as people think." One prime example: polls show that while most people don't trust Congress, they say they trust their own representative.

But Rinehart, too, comes back to the media as a source for some problems. For example, during recent budget meetings in Olympia, only a handful of reporters attended. Yet she said the meetings produced meaningful discussion of serious issues. On the other hand, when another legislative meeting featured two elected officials known for getting into loud fights, TV cameras couldn't get in the door fast enough.

"Watergate changed everything," Evans adds. "It bred a new type of investigative reporter who started out believing something was bad and they were determined to find it. It created combative reporting ever since."

But others say the media shouldn't take the brunt of the blame. Dobel, the associate dean for public affairs, says that the media "is an amplifier, not a creator. It tells you where the American people are."

In his view, the American people are frustrated. It prompts them to embrace term limits and spending limits in an attempt to wrest some control of a system they perceive is out of their reach.

"Limits on terms and spending are big overreactions," says Dobel, "used by one percent of the political spectrum who don't care about legitimacy. They only want to limit the power of government. They don't realize what the government does for them in terms of providing essentials like police, clean water, safe food, building codes and on and on.

"Besides, the way elections have been over the past six years, who needs term limits? People are getting voted out of office after short terms.

"But it isn't a successful endeavor to convince people of the good government does. The government has a public relations problem because people take it for granted. They don't see the link of what their tax money goes for."

What will it take to restore trust in government? McDonald says that Republican strategies like the Contract With America (and those contracts with individual states by their congressional delegations) are critical because it creates more accountability, where people know exactly ahead of time what is promised and what they can expect.

Evans, who served on both the state and federal levels, believes this age of mistrust is just a phase. "It is the cyclical nature of government and people's beliefs," he says. "The image of government will indeed change once more and more people realize the thinness of, and the distortion of, the way news is reported. There will be a shift in the way it is reported, and people will listen.

"The same goes for political campaigning. If someone runs a positive campaign and wins, people will say that is the way to go.

"We will never see a time when government is viewed as an enormous good by everyone. There will always be skepticism. And that's good. But we won't always have the extraordinary distrust of today."

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