A generation ago the statement “We’re from the government/Internal Revenue Service, and we’re here to help you” was characterized as one of the Great Lies. It joined, “Of course, I’ll respect you in the morning!” in that category. At the time, we laughed. But, if we were skeptical/cynical about the activities of the United States government a generation ago, now we have good reason to be afraid.
The “hat trick” of political disconnects now roiling Washington is not yet at the level of definitive scandals, let alone a “Watergate” level, president-impeaching catastrophe. Despite the leaping-up-and-down efforts by frenetic Republicans attempting to link (a) mangled talking points about terrorist murder of the American ambassador and three other diplomats in Benghazi; (b) IRS targeting politically conservative individuals for intrusive tax audits and deliberate delays in registering conservative groups for tax exemption status; (c) and investigations of major media for links to security/leaking activity, there is not yet any proof these were systematically ordered by White House operatives.
That is a social rather than a legal judgment. Because all of the actions remain defensibly legal.
However, in political-social terms, U.S. trust-dependent structures have been imploding for over a generation. If during the Vietnam War era, the boomers said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” we are now closer to saying, “Don’t trust anyone — period.” Trust in presidential honesty melted down with Nixon; subsequently, despite honorable presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, Carter, and George H.W. Bush, it was dealt a fatal blow when “It depends on what ‘is’ is” characterized Clinton’s view on presidential honesty. And George W. Bush is flayed for allegedly leading the United States into a “war for oil” in Iraq premised on non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
Now we have a president who gives a great speech and can “keep it zipped” but frequently appears clueless regarding how to engage the U.S. political structure other than blaming the Republicans for not playing nice and giving him what he wants. Pathetic.
Even more demoralizing for democracy is the public attitude toward Congress. According to Rasmussen polling, less than 10 percent believe that Congress is doing a good/excellent job. And in the 2012 election, reportedly a significant percentage thought that all congressmen (including their own) should be defeated. Such, of course, was not the case; the reality is the United States has the Congress it wants. Representatives are legitimately elected, but mostly from carefully delineated districts designed to maximize chances for re-election. So the much-denounced “gridlock” is what American voters have chosen, reflecting not nefarious/illegal operations but genuine differences over what direction we should take in social structures, domestic attitudes, economic supports, environmental protection, and foreign affairs. There are acute and passionate divisions over issues as wide-ranging as taxation/distribution of wealth, health care, immigration, gay marriage, gun control, etc., that are generating ever-deepening bitterness as the years grind by with no resolutions in sight. Unsurprisingly, the polls indicate that only 30 percent of Americans believe we are headed in the right direction.
The rot is reflected at state/local levels where The Economist noted that between 1976-2010, 2,522 elected NY state officials were convicted of corruption. And New Jersey is a talk show joke epitomized by a 2009 case arresting 44 officials, including three mayors and five rabbis.
Nor can we expect any near-term resolutions.
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Thus the federal government's incompetence at best — malice at worst — is reflected in the trifecta of Benghazi, IRS, and media investigations. They are, however, merely icing on the cake of popular disaffection.
But for the first time, the mainstream media has felt the knife-at-the-throat pressures from judiciary-directed investigations that have concerned conservatives for years. For the first time, the general public appreciates tax authorities’ unbridled powers to harass an administration’s political opponents.
Reinforcing the decaying faith of Americans in their institutions has been the contempt verging on hatred felt for bankers/CEO/economically successful during the “Occupy” eruptions. Although obviously reinforced by extensive un- and under-employment by college-educated youth, the result is growing hostility to free enterprise writ large.
Additionally, star-revered athletes from Lance Armstrong to Tiger Woods to the superstar confessions of steroid-driven baseball players have generated feet-of-clay popular disappointment.
And now the armed forces, for years identified as our most respected profession, is mired in sexual harassment cases ranging from clandestine videos of West Point female cadets to harassment charges against officers responsible for anti-harassment programs.
In such atmosphere, Toronto Mayor Ford looks normal. Recall former Washington mayor Marion Barry was filmed smoking crack, imprisoned, but returned to be again elected mayor.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.