For nearly four months, citizens were told – and politicians were gleeful – that polls showed American trust in government had surged to heights unseen since the 1960s.
As the story goes: With the destruction of the World Trade Center, the imminence of domestic terrorist threats, and the putative need for additional expansive powers for government, politicians unleashed (and the liberal media cheered) a wave of new spending, new controls and new powers for the federal government.
But last week, Americans everywhere got the perfect example of how deceptive media polling can be and how destructive its influence on reasoned debate can be.
ABCNews.com reported that the public “by a wide margin” trusts the federal government when it comes to handling national defense and the war on terrorism,” but “when it comes to handling social issues, American’s distrust of government remains high.”
Nearly seven in 10 voters (68 percent) trust the government to handle “national security.” And a corresponding 61 percent do not trust government to handle “social issues” – the generic term for the ever-expanding welfare state.
Sixty-one percent were unbelievers!
What a radical difference this frame of reference would have had on political debate in Washington. If journalists and representatives had made this distinction and such public opinion had been part of the public dialogue about the role of government, the unchecked ability to expand government might meet some rhetorical resistance (for once). Just imagine if it had been a regular question during the Clinton years.
But the very fact that tests of trust in government are so rare and journalistic interpretation is so routinely sloppy is proof once again that media outlets not only can manipulate polling, but they do.
In a bid to resurrect the era of big government, it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see that liberty is often the first victim when editors and pollster get together to write questions.
Journalistic bias and pollsters’ lack of reflection has repeatedly put premiums on politicians who take instant government action, rewarding proven incompetence by government with more spending and little demand for reform.
This iron triangle of journalist, pollster and politicians then engage in univocal cries for more regulation in the face of every national disaster, school-yard shooting, or whatever gauzy stories of the tragic are drummed up for polling ratification.
But such imposition of the federal government in the name of quick-fix democracy is the exact opposite of what the founders intended.
A good government made up of a free citizenry “does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests,” Alexander Hamilton wrote.
Even as the strongest advocate of central government, Hamilton was weary of demagogues and mobs because without the Constitution’s refraction of power, the government would disintegrate into tyranny. And Thomas Jefferson agreed, remarking that tyrannies can be defined as easily by 173 despots as by one in government.
In “Federalist No. 52,” Hamilton reminds us why the Constitution limited government: “With less power, therefore, to abuse, the federal representatives can be less tempted on one side, and will be doubly watched on the other.”
As ABC News showed, the suspicion of government remains at sky-high levels, but the federal intruders continue to ply their desire to expand the powers of the state.
What this single poll shows is that there is far more to American weariness about the expanding tentacles of government than an unthinking “cynicism.”
Which is why there is a concerted effort to undercut the very use of the word.
The Washington-to-Boston power corridor (both politicians and media) hate cynicism. The self-important Metroliner elite wants to erase it and cultivate desire for high levels of government satisfaction for one reason: They need to be needed.
Like so many of the politically ambitious throughout history, they have a desire to dominate, direct and control others. But that’s not enough. They want to be thanked for dominating, directing and controlling our lives.
They aren’t just a self-denominated elite, they see themselves as an indispensable elite – arguing for a government they run to improve your life by telling you what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.
It’s no coincidence that cynicism has grown in direct proportion to the growth of government and crusading left-wing journalists and their self-ratifying polls.
As government grows bigger and drifts from its core functions (such as the defense of the borders) it trivializes itself, proving in a thousand ways the incompetence of government and the intractability of the human soul to mechanistic bureaucratic solutions.
And 61 percent of the people know it.
For the American founders, what today’s legions of political front-men call cynicism would not have been objectionable.
It would have been called vigilance. The only difference is that the founders such as Patrick Henry married it to terms like “manly fortitude” and the “jealous protection of liberty.”
In other words, they saw realism about government as a spur to limited (not just small) government, policed by a vigilant citizenry well aware that all are equal under the law – especially those in power.
Media polling has become an aid and ally in the crusading journalists’ effort to expand government. At key moments in debate, they can test – with subtly constructed wording – polls that show support for new regulations, new agencies, new spending or, when real reform is advocated, polls can attack those who wish to restrain, modify or reduce the money and power in the hands of the government.
Matthew Robinson is author of the just-released “Mobocracy: How the Media’s Obsession with Polling Twists the News, Alters Elections, and Undermines Democracy” (Prima Publishing). He is an adjunct scholar with the Claremont Institute.