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Commentary: Lee H. Hamilton—Remember What Government “Can” Do

Here’s a question: When was the last time that at least half of Americans said the government in Washington could be trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time?

It was right after 9/11, 2001, according to the Pew Research Center, and it was really just a blink of an eye. Before that, we would have to go back to the 1960s.

And after the 9/11 bump subsides? You won’t be surprised to learn that since the end of the George W. Bush administration, the percentage of those who trust the government all or most of the time has hovered around their twenties or even their teens.


It’s not a good situation. Trust is a fundamental requirement of democratic governance. When it is gone, replaced by suspicion and lack of trust, our system cannot function. For representative democracy to work as it should, the civil servants, politicians and policymakers who act on our behalf must have the support of ordinary people – who can be sure that our representatives will agree with us without half-truths. and that government can and does effectively deliver the goods, services, and policy impact we expect.

There is no doubt that over the past few decades – beginning with the Vietnam War and Watergate – that faith has been tested. In many ways, Americans saw the effectiveness and relevance of government all the worse because it was crippled by partisan divisions, just as they felt left on their own in the face of economic dislocation and cultural. Globalization, changes brought about by technology, soaring income inequality, slow wage growth for working families, concern over burning social issues – all of this has heightened the sense of loss of control. And that was before the pandemic.

Yet despite all of this, when I look around me, I am reminded of how much our government has accomplished — and how much it is taken for granted by many Americans. People often question the value of government in their lives, even if they depend on a monthly social security check, or drive on a freeway, or attend college on a student loan, or go online, or rely on the overall safety of our food and medicine or escape to a national park for a vacation. You had the idea.

I won’t bore you with a long list of things the federal government has done well. But I want to say that it only takes a moment to go back – on everything from the creation of the land-grant colleges, to establishing the rules by which American businesses operate, to Medicare and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, most recently the Affordable Care Act, allowing the rapid development and approval of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines, and the continued security provided by the most powerful and advanced military in the world. world – to recognize the fundamental role our government plays in shaping American life.

So, yes, while government has its flaws, it’s also crucial to understand that it can function effectively and fairly – and that we cannot meet many of the challenges we face as a nation without a government that has the public’s trust. The character, ingenuity and resilience of the American people have always been key to the nation’s success, but so have the key government initiatives that bring our strengths together, from good education to basic science and medical research. to the physical and legal infrastructure that underpins our economy. .

In the end, there can be many reasons to worry about the effectiveness of government, but government must also be part of the solution. Our duty as Americans is to ensure, through the wise use of our votes and voices, that it can be an effective force in meeting our challenges.

Lee Hamilton writes regularly on Congress for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, where he is a senior adviser.