As young Americans are growing more distrustful of government regardless of political affiliation, President Obama wants them to stop it.
In a commencement speech in Ohio this past weekend, he said:
Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.
Now, some of his later points are quite correct: We shouldn’t, as Obama says, want to be “a people who place all our faith in government to solve our problems”—nor should we attribute every single problem to government. As many problems as the government does cause, to absolve ourselves, our culture, our choices, and other factors both individual and institutional of all blame is itself irresponsible.
But the most controversial part of the President’s quote, the bit I’ve included above, is simply not true. As much as our government is supposed to be representative, to be of the people, by the people, for the people—all that jazz—I think we all know it’s not.
On financial questions alone, the contrast between the DC area in general and congress in particular is glaring. And let’s not even get into the way our government takes a strictly personal-convenience-based approach to the rule of law these days, feeling inclined toward strict “justice” when the question is whether a minority who got caught with pot should go to jail; but if it’s a matter of high-level officials approving of torture or spying on Americans without a warrant or drone strikes on children, there’s not a conviction to be found. Glenn Greenwald puts it well:
American history is suffused with violations of equality before the law. The country was steeped in such violations at its founding. But even when this principle was being violated, its supremacy was also being affirmed: resoundingly and unanimously in the case of the founders. That the rule of law—not the rule of men—would reign supreme was one of the few real points of agreement among all the founders. Arguably it was the primary one.…
[But if]—in the judgment of political leaders—it’s sufficiently disruptive, divisive, or distracting to hold powerful political officials accountable under the law on equal terms with ordinary Americans, then they should be exempt and the rule of law suspended, all in the name of political harmony, of “moving on.” But of course, it will always be divisive and distracting, by definition, to prosecute the most powerful political leaders, so [we have] created a template for elite immunity.
In light of the death of the rule of law and a multitude of other issues, we can only maintain today that our government is representative and working in our best interest if our heads are stuck firmly in the sand. Whether our government has always been “nothing more than some separate, sinister entity” is up for debate, but there’s no denying that this is an accurate description now. And while it’s not the “root of all our problems,” it’s certainly the root of many.
Now, the interesting thing is that Obama is not alone in his desire to persuade us that he and his compatriots are trustworthy. When the poll about millennials’ distrust of government came out, Trey Grayson of Harvard’s Institute of Politics said “he was particularly alarmed by the long-term implications of the poll’s results, explaining that the support of the millennials is key to the future stability of modern American institutions like the media, local and federal governments, and Wall Street.” He added that “We’ve got to give millennials a reason to trust these institutions.”
If Grayson’s name sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because he was the candidate widely backed by the GOP establishment in his race against Rand Paul for Senate in 2010. He’s a Republican, and he has the exact same perspective on the issue of whether or not we should trust the government as Barack Obama. Talk about giving the lie to your own argument…
A final point: Mistrust of government is not a bad thing. In fact, I’d suggest that even if you want far, far more government than I do, you should still want a large subset of the population who take everything the government says with a mountain of salt. Skepticism about what the government says and does is absolutely vital for keeping government honest. I’m happy to see this spirit on the rise among my generation; it’s been sorely lacking for years.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then.” I don’t like the armed rebellion he may have had in mind, but the principle holds: Not every distrust of government will be accurate. There will always be crazy conspiracy theories and people who see bugbears around every corner.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, because it’s a really important baby. In fact, it’s a quintessentially American baby; and to the extent that we have a national identity, however faint, this is it: There’s a real sense in which we don’t trust the government, and we don’t want to, and we never will. And there’s nothing wrong with that.