Debate in Congress has always been contentious. The levels of vitriol may seem especially acute these days, but confrontation is not new. I can remember times on Capitol Hill when “debate” was actually more of a screaming match than a civil discussion.
Back then, we had a colleague who invariably stepped forward at these times to remind each side that if we wanted to get anything done — rather than just shout at each other for the cameras — we had to have a measure of trust in one another. We used to call this his “Trust is the coin of the realm speech.” And though we joked about it, we appreciated it. Because he was right.
Representative government depends on trust. It depends on trust among policy-makers in Congress, even when they don’t agree with one another. It depends on popular trust in the people who make decisions on Capitol Hill and in the White House. It depends on trust in those who are charged with implementing those laws. And it requires trust in the institutions in which those decisions are produced and implemented.
We might have joked about my long-ago colleague’s speech, but trust really is the coin of the realm. It is a bedrock requirement of democratic governance. If there’s nothing but cynicism, deep suspicion, and lack of confidence in the system, it cannot work.
To understand how interwoven trust must be within the system, think about it from the point of view of ordinary citizens. We have to believe that our voices will be heard, listened to, and taken into consideration in the halls of power.
This means that those in power must be accountable, and that the institutions they serve in will function in predictable, rule-based ways. Which is why it is so damaging when government acts in ways that diminish trust.
If you feel that government is just helping corporations and rich people, you lose confidence in the system. If people see a government that tolerates a high degree of economic inequality in the country, and great disparities in opportunities between rich people and middle-class people, they no longer trust that system.
Yet for representative democracy to work, public officials, politicians and policy makers have to have a sufficient level of support from ordinary people. You and I have to believe that our representatives will in fact level with us rather than present half-truths and distortions, and will act in our interests. Similarly, for government to have any standing in our lives, we have to have confidence in the experts, technocrats, and frontline staff who make the system work.
This means, in turn, that government has to be able to deliver the goods, the services, the protections that people expect. So the performance of the government — its efficiency and effectiveness — is fundamental to the success of representative democracy.
The same with our elected representatives. If they can’t show they’re able to function according to the rules, traditions and norms that we expect, if they are unable to demonstrate durability in the face of adversity, if they are unable to acknowledge the facts, if they cannot rise above division and gridlock and negotiate to get things done, then we lose faith. Which may explain why so many have become suspicious not just of our government, but of one another.
Ironically, one cure for this lack of trust is more exposure to the system, through engagement and participation in politics or in civic life. If people are regular participants in political parties, clubs, organizations, or associations of all kinds in their communities, they are much more likely to carry some level of trust in government. And to the extent they don’t do these things, public life seems more distant and less trustworthy.
There is no doubt that my colleague was right. If the various levels of government don’t enjoy the trust of the people, if within each level the participants don’t trust one another, then representative democracy doesn’t work.
Which is why the low levels of trust we see in the United States today are so worrisome. How far down this road can we go before we lose the ability to function effectively as a democracy?
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.