Pelosi & Co. Need to Govern With One Objective, To Restore Public Trust in Congress

Earlier this week, I asked: What is the long-term price of tolerating corruption? The answer was a political environment like Brazil’s, in which the only trust left is in the army and the church, with none in government. Every move by those in power to undermine trust in our institutions, such as Trump’s appointment of the rankly partisan Matthew Whittaker to the Dept. of Justice, is worthy of our sustained collective attention and scorn. Without trust, the engines of democracy will stall. Without trust, we’re on our way to being Brazil or Venezuela.

That’s the viewpoint of two Republican-appointed former intelligence chiefs, Michael Hayden & James Clapper. In this review of their two recent on the subject, they argue that the decline of trust in American institutions is leading to a crisis of legitimacy:

“Ultimately, they fear that the consensus that holds the nation together–objective truth–is breaking down. That, they say, has been the precursor to government collapse, civil war and dictatorship in other countries, and they worry the same thing can happen here.

Back when I was at PBS, we often bragged that we were the most trusted public institution after the military. Whenever I fact-checked that talking point for a speech or press release, I always remember being shocked at how low trust in Congress was, even after it was freshly elected in opposition to a sitting President’s administration. Hayden & Clapper argue that the plummeting trust in the CIA and NSA isn’t due to a change in opinion about those agencies themselves, but about the ability of Congress to hold them accountable.

That’s why I agree with this editorial in The Times, which argues that Pelosi and the Democrats need to avoid the distracting scandals of The White House, designed to keep attention swirling around the President and to throw into doubt any statement about objective reality. As tempting as it may be for Democrats to engage in a spiteful volley of subpoenas, they can’t go overboard. Hold the executive brand accountable, yes. But the focus should be on sustaining their own message and achieving their own worthy aims.

If Congress governs with sanity and integrity, we might just find a new way forward.

What do you think?


What is The Long-Term Price of Tolerating Corruption?

Matthew Whittaker, Trump’s acting attorney general, made a hefty six-figure sum from a non-profit supposedly devoted to public oversight of government, but which spent most of its efforts making partisan attacks on Democrats. He sat on the board of a company that the Federal Trade Commission has labelled a scam. He has also made statements that he doesn’t believe in the full independence of the judiciary branch, something which has been settled in America since the 18th Century, and which we all learn in school to be an unshakable foundation of our democracy. Because of his partisanship and questionable character, past attorneys general have gone so far as to sign a letter asking Mr. Whittaker not to politicize his office.

Is this a person we want running the United States Dept. of Justice? Mr. Trump, who has made no secret of his use of public office for personal gain, seems to think so. It could be tempting to see Mr. Whittaker as just another scandal of the last few years, to be despised but also tossed on the heap with all the others. But that’s an error. To let this pass would be to cross a line and let public confidence in yet another brand of government erode.

What’s the long-term cost when corruption is assumed? We need only look to Brazil, which has recently elected a far right-wing candidate to the presidency who has made public statements in support of dictatorship, rape jokes about his colleagues in government, and who has credibly threatened to put his political opponents in jail. He doesn’t believe in gay rights, and openly supports torture.

Yet it’s not because they agree with him that Brazilians elected Bolsonaro. It was a wave of mistrust in an openly corrupt government that propelled him to the presidency. Most Brazilians don’t even think he’s qualified, but they fear and mistrust the old ruling party so much that they are willing to tolerate his rhetoric. As conditions in Brazil have worsened, with the murder rate hitting 157 homicides per day, and the economy collapsing, trust in government has collapsed in turn. Bolsonaro won trust by making speeches in praise of the only institutions that Brazilians still trust, the army and the church.

We’re not there yet in the U.S. But every time we look the other way at contempt shown for the rule of law or the use of public trust for personal gain, we take a little step in that direction. The public institutions that Americans trust are not so different from the ones Brazilians trust most. We trust our news media more, at least for now.

It won’t be confidence in a demagogue that ends democracy in the U.S., but a long simmering mistrust in all our public institutions, kept going by the constant addition of new scandals.