The Erosion of Trust
January 10, 2006
By Ernest Partridge, The
nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both
instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly
unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change
in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of
- William O. Douglas
Trust is the moral cement that binds a just political order.
Like a person in good physical health, a society of trusting citizens
takes its good fortune for granted as each citizen goes about his
personal business. When we dwell in such a fortunate society, awareness
and appreciation of the bond of civic trust fades below the collective
consciousness, even as we continue to enjoy the benefits thereof.
We pay our bills and send personal messages through the mail,
trusting the Postal Service to deliver the mail on time and not
to open and read it en route. We purchase our food and drugs confident
that the food will not be contaminated and that our drugs will be
both safe and effective. When we go shopping, we often do not bother
to check the change returned to us at the register, and we routinely
write checks against bank deposits without scrupulously checking
our balance. In short, we generally trust
Despite two decades of relentless assault upon "big government"
by the (so -called) conservatives, we have continued to trust
our government. Until very recently, we have expressed our personal
and political opinions in our homes and over the telephone and e-mail,
without fear that the government has planted a device to eavesdrop
on our conversations. The supreme law of our political order contains
a Bill of Rights which, we have confidently believed, guarantees
our freedom of speech, of worship, of assembly and the privacy of
our persons and our homes. And when our personal lives have been
disrupted by an "insolence of office," we have generally been assured
that the courts would provide a remedy. For as long as this benign
regime of law and order has been secure, it has seemed so ordinary,
so natural, that we have taken little notice of it.
But today, many citizens are expressing fear that this benevolent
political order is in grave jeopardy. These individuals are called
"alarmists" by conservative pundits, and even "traitors"
by a few right-wing commentators.
I have experienced an alternative political order, albeit briefly.
Of my eight visits to Russia, the first three were during the final
days of the Soviet Union. During the summers of 1990 and 1991, I
stayed with a friend in his Moscow apartment. On one occasion, as
we were having a free-wheeling political conversation, he abruptly
stopped me, put a finger to his mouth and then pointed toward the
ceiling, in the general direction of an undetected yet plausible
Thereafter, we carried on our conversations outdoors. The brief
stroll between the Metro station and his apartment ran alongside
the local post office, the upper floors of which were lit 24/7.
Why? I was told that the postal workers, under the direction of
the KGB, were reading personal mail en route to delivery. (To this
day, my Russian friends advise me not to expect my postal and e-mail
to be delivered to them unread). And on my trip to the Moscow Sheremetyevo
Airport to board my flight back to the States, my driver was pulled
over by The Militziya (traffic cop). He did not write out a citation.
Instead, at the driver's instruction, I handed the officer a $20
bill, whereupon he waved us on. My feeling of liberation upon returning
home to California was palpable.
I returned with a renewed pride in my country, its Constitution
and Bill of Rights, its traditions of tolerance, fair-play and mutual
trust, and with a renewed gratitude for my good fortune in being
a citizen of these free and prosperous United States.
But in the past five years, that pride and gratitude have been
clouded by fear and foreboding.
Yes, we Americans have thrived in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
But some of the foundation of that civic trust has been seriously
eroded, and unless we repair and restore it, that trust may be lost
Within the memory of all of us, we trusted the ballot box and
were thus assured that our political leaders enjoyed the legitimacy
of "the consent of the governed."
We enjoyed some expectation that those whom we elected to our
Congress and our legislatures represented those who voted for them,
and not those who financed their elections.
Our trust in our elected representatives had, in the past, been
honorably reinforced by our independent "fourth estate" – the press.
When government or the elected and appointed denizens thereof got
out of line, the press stepped in and exposed the waste, fraud and
abuse. The New York Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers,
and the Washington Post investigation of Watergate were among
the finest hours of American journalism.
And when representative government failed, aggrieved citizens
could turn to the rule of law, and ultimately the Supreme Court,
as it desegregated public education, enforced voting rights, protected
the citizen's right to privacy, and maintained the wall of separation
between church and state.
Within the past five years, all these foundations of our civic
and political trust – the franchise, representative government,
the press, the Supreme Court - have been severely compromised.
In the 2000 presidential election, throughout the country, but
most significantly in the deciding state of Florida, eligible voters
in heavily Democratic districts were refused access to the ballot
box, or if they managed to vote their ballots were invalidated,
all this through an array of tactics too numerous to mention but
familiar to those who watched or read the transcripts of the hearings
of the U. S. Civil Rights Commission. It is virtually certain now
that in 2000 a sizeable majority of Florida voters intended to vote
for Al Gore which, of course, would have won him the White House.
Despite all this, soon after the 9/11 attacks, George Bush had
the unmitigated gall to proclaim to the Congress, to the American
public, and to the world that the terrorists "hate what they see
right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government."
Alas, at that moment his administration was not "democratically
elected." We the People knew this, and thus our implicit trust in
the "sanctity of the ballot" has been taken from us.
That betrayal of trust was compounded in 2004 in an election that
was "won" by vote totals largely collected and compiled
on machines built by, and secret software written by, admitted contributors
to the Bush campaign and the Republican party. These devices produce
no printed or otherwise independent record by which the vote totals
can be verified.
Accordingly, if the vote totals in 2004 were accurate and Bush's
victory fairly won, there is simply no way to prove this. And there
is compelling statistical, anecdotal and circumstantial evidence
that it was not fairly won. Moreover, the Republican Congress is
uninterested in passing legislation that would validate computer
So it comes to this: whether fair or fraudulent, computer voting
provides no independent data with which to validate the vote totals.
Hence, the public is given no reason to trust the official results
of elections, and thus to acknowledge the
legitimacy of the government.
In the election of 2000, the "consent of the governed" was overturned
by that very institution that we had come to regard as the final
protector of our liberty and of the rule of law: the Supreme Court
of the United States. The text of that treasonous
decision, Bush v. Gore – a compendium of incoherence,
inconsistency and special pleading in defense of a foregone partisan
conclusion – stands in permanent condemnation of the felonious five
who crafted it. The immediate cost of Bush v. Gore is the
realization, throughout the realm, that the Supreme Court can no
longer be trusted to act on behalf of the citizens at large or to
serve as a protector of the rule of law. Instead, it has become
just another instrument in the service of the establishment of wealth
The restoration of the stature and integrity of the Supreme Court
after the massive betrayal of public trust in Bush v. Gore
will have to be hard-won over a long time. And that restoration
is by no means assured.
The American press, once the wonder and envy of the civilized world,
has been transformed from a watchdog to a lapdog of the conservative
political establishment. The mighty pen, which facilitated the end
of a dreadful foreign war in Viet Nam and which forced a felonious
President from office, became, in the past two Presidential elections,
little more than a public relations arm of one of the contestants.
When Bush entered office in 2000, a myriad of questions about his
personal qualifications and political positions were left unexamined.
In the meantime, Al Gore, generally regarded at the outset of the
campaign as a skillful, well-informed, highly intelligent, and honorable
public servant, was transformed in the public mind into a self-absorbed,
This was accomplished by the unrebutted media promulgation of what
can only be called a baseless slander. The particulars – that Gore
claimed to have "invented the Internet," to have "discovered the
Love Canal site," and so on – all were invented whole-cloth and
promiscuously by the media.
Even so, Gore gathered more votes than Bush. But it was close
enough that a combination of conniving Florida pols, GOP thugs at
the county election offices, selective disenfranchisement of legal
voters by a private and partisan "research organization," and so
on, topped off by Bush v. Gore, sufficed to steal the election
and violate the "consent of the governed."
The delinquency of the media in the 2004 election was, if anything,
even worse. A majority of the public was persuaded to believe, to
the advantage of the Bush-Cheney ticket, the demonstrably false
claims that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks, had
developed weapons of mass destruction, and was a supporter of al
Qaeda. This could only be accomplished through a failure of the
media to report the facts to the American voters.
Furthermore, thanks to the cooperation of the media, in the minds
of many voters John Kerry, an authentic war hero, was transformed
into a coward and a fake, and George Bush, a deserter, was transformed
into a war hero. Bush's truncated "service" in the Air
National Guard was either ignored or, when attempts were made to
the report it, the maverick journalists paid a heavy price. The
attempt by Dan Rather ended his career.
As corrosive as outright lies to a democratic order, is media
distraction and irrelevance. Thus the public is served an endless
diet of journalistic junk food: Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Scott
Peterson, the missing teenager in Aruba, the love lives of show-biz
celebs, etc. ad nauseam. While a persistent problem throughout the
history of the commercial American media, under the regime of Bush
II this constipation of substantive news and diarrhea of vacuous
blather has, for the first time, been deliberately designed to serve
a political purpose.
In the meantime, the theft of the Presidency, the transfer of
the public treasury to the wealthiest fraction of our citizens,
and the lies spewed forth to justify the invasion of Iraq, have
all been judged by the media moguls as unworthy of public attention.
Nor has there been much media attention to the cost in lives and
treasure of the Iraq war, or the failure of the administration,
despite repeated reports and warnings, to deal with the genuine
threats of terrorism, with global warming, with federal insolvency.
And so, through the accumulation and concentration of media control
and ownership, the regressive right has closed down the vigorous
and diverse public debate which is the lifeblood of a democratic
society, all the while promulgating the manifestly absurd public
complaint that "the media has a liberal bias."
Over the past two decades, right-wing pundits and politicians
have told us endlessly that "government can't be trusted" – and
that virtually all government functions can best be handled by private
enterprise. As if to prove their point, while in power these regressives
have violated the sanctity of the franchise and the integrity of
the rule of law, and have spewed out misinformation from their ill-gotten
public offices, all of which has provided just cause to further
And when nature delivers a devastating blow, as with the Katrina
catastrophe, the regressive regime further "proves" the
inadequacy of "big government" by putting an incompetent
hack in charge of emergency response, and then handing out emergency
funds, through no-bid contracts, to the usual suspect mega-corporations.
Meanwhile, the presidency, and particularly Bush's press office,
have become fountainheads of lies. Virtually from the moment that
Dubya took office, we were served the slander that the departing
Clinton administration had "trashed" the executive offices. The
General Accounting Office set that record straight. We were told
that Saddam kicked out the arms inspectors. A lie. We were told
that "we know where the WMDs are." A lie. That all wire
taps take place with a warrant. A lie. That "we do not torture."
A lie. But why go on? There are hundreds more, (as documented here,
Like their most steadfast media apologist, Rush "I'm not making
this up folks" Limbaugh, the Bush spinmeisters make things up to
suit the perceived needs of the moment. But why should we expect
otherwise? These folks come from the world of marketing and corporate
public relations – the same folks that have told us that cigarettes
are not addictive, that DDT is perfectly safe, and that concern
about global warming is based on junk science.
Trust and credibility are the mother's milk of effective democratic
leadership. FDR and Churchill had it in World War II, and so did
George Bush when he stood at Ground Zero, bullhorn in hand. Bush
was trusted then because the public needed desperately to trust
him. But now Bush's fund of trust, like that of LBJ and Nixon before
him, has been exhausted, and with it, his capacity to lead. For
truth and reality are remorseless adversaries, and eventually as
the lies are exposed, trust evaporates, whereupon leadership fails.
Then follows a time of great political danger. For if the discredited
regime is to remain in power, civil order, once accomplished through
trust, mutual respect, and obedience to law, must instead be achieved
through force and threat, which is to say, oppression.
So now, when our country has been dealt a grievous injury by the
terrorists, when the regime in power has proven itself incapable
of dealing with natural disasters or extricating itself from an
ill-conceived and immoral war, when the dreadful consequences of
fiscal insanity are soon to come due, we are called upon to place
our trust and loyalty in an administration which has gained office
through an unprincipled manipulation and subversion of our foundational
political institutions: the vote, the rule of law, and the free
press. Today, when we desperately need to trust our government,
trust, that essential moral resource has, like the federal surplus,
been squandered to serve private greed and ambition.
The essential first step in restoring trust in our political institutions
is to separate from the government those who are most responsible
for discrediting those institutions.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in
the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes
the website, The
Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, The
Crisis Papers. He is at work on a book, Conscience of a
Progressive, which can be seen in-progress here.
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