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The myth of the purloined combs
We don't trust politicians, and maybe we shouldn't. But our distrust has harmful consequences.
Does our sensibility about politicians’ trustworthiness match an unfortunate reality? (Photo by Rex Smith)
In the men’s locker room at the rather posh club just up the street from our state capitol, you’ll find everything a well-groomed male politician — or anybody who wants to look like one — might need after a workout and a shower: anti-perspirant and hair gel, for example, packages of single-use toothbrushes pre-treated with minty toothpaste, a rack of disposable razors and, notably, a big canister of 8-inch combs soaking in aqua-blue disinfectant. But one day a while back, there were no combs to be found, which I casually mentioned to a longtime lobbyist who was shaving at the next sink.
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s because the Legislature is in town.”
Har-har. Turns out it’s a longstanding joke at the club — that the comb inventory mysteriously shrinks during the half-year or so that legislators assemble in the capitol.
It’s a mild libel, really, the notion that politicians can’t be trusted not to pilfer a plastic comb, a judgment surely not as harsh as Mark Twain’s observation a century and a half ago, “No man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the Legislature is in session.” Some decades later, Will Rogers based his wildly popular comedy routines on the notion that, as he put it, “America has the best politicians money can buy,” though he also insisted, “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”1 Folks thought that was pretty funny.
Disdain for politicians predates the American republic, certainly, and you’d have to agree that it’s often well-earned. You can’t blame people for harsh judgment when you encounter someone like George Santos, the new congressman from Long Island’s North Shore, who claimed as he campaigned for the job that he was a successful financial wizard (he wasn’t) after being a star athlete (not that, either) with a high grade-point average (which he didn’t earn) at a prestigious college (that he didn’t attend), after which he earned an M.B.A. (you guessed it: he didn’t).2
But Santos is an extravagantly bold scoundrel; you don’t often find a politician with a fraction of the chutzpah it takes to engage in such wholesale fabrication. Even so, from the way people talk about politicians, you might conclude that our entire democracy is run by scalawags and scamps, whose only objective is personal aggrandizement. That’s actually what people think: Two-thirds of Americans say politicians run for office “to serve their own personal interests,” according to a Pew Research Center poll last year.3
If that were truly the case, it’s hard to imagine how the nation could have survived so well for so long. Over some decades, I’ve known a lot of people who might be considered career politicians, at the federal, state and local level, as well as plenty who served for a while and then went on to other work — usually involuntarily, after voters decided to try out somebody else. Here’s what I’ve observed: Most public officials are not corrupt. They take their responsibility to citizens seriously, and try to do the job they were elected to do effectively — partly because they want to get re-elected, yes, but also because they think it’s the right thing to do.
Recently, though, it has seemed as though there are a lot more fabulists and charlatans in public life. Or else I’ve just been gullible for a long time. You know, maybe I simply didn’t notice that the combs have been missing all along.
Either conclusion is troubling, though. It’s bad for our democracy whether there’s an actual swelling of the ranks of liars and phonies in public life or if the reality of the longtime faithlessness of public officials finally disillusions people who, like me, have believed in the power of government to do good — to promote equity, protect public safety and sustain community life.
Of course, there have always been opportunists and manipulators in politics, and we know that these days there’s a pretty big cadre of cynical deceivers, maybe beckoned to baloney by the success of Donald Trump, the most egregious liar in American political history. But my sense has always been that, thankfully, the fibber caucus has been in the minority.
“It’s simply not possible,” one now-retired state legislator complained to me a few years back, “that all the statesmen lived a century or two ago, and now there’s nobody worth anything in government.”
Yet more than half of all Americans — and fully two-thirds of Republicans and rural residents — told pollsters last spring that they considered the government “corrupt and rigged against me.”4 Congress, in particular, is held in low regard: A Pew survey just after the last election found that three-quarters of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job -- which is a hefty load of displeasure, to be sure, though it’s a 10-point improvement in the public’s rating of Congress from two years before.5 (Do you suppose the argument that Joe Biden and the Democrat-led Congress got things done over the past couple of years got through to some people?)
You might think that distrust of politicians is just a harmless function of human nature. It’s not as though Americans are unique in their views, or that it’s only politicians who are low on the trust scale. For 22 years, Edelman, the global communication firm, has surveyed some 36,000 people in 28 countries. The study released a year ago found “a world ensnared in a vicious cycle of distrust, fueled by a growing lack of faith in media and government.”6
To those who figure that this is just the way things are, and that we need to get used to it, I’d say that acquiescence is dangerous, and that it’s time to push back. The loss of trust can have disastrous effects.
Consider this: Voters who lose trust in government can become disengaged or further polarized, or perhaps turn to extremists who promise a revolution to throw out a decayed system. There’s also the practical reality that a government without public support can’t deliver needed services and social progress. If citizens don’t trust the government’s certification that vaccines are safe, for example, will they get a potentially life-saving shot? If government loses credibility, will citizens honor its laws aimed at promoting social justice? Will they even pay their fair share of taxes?
At the Institute for Public Policy Research, the leading progressive think thank in Great Britain, researchers identified two key factors that seem to set in place the level of public trust in politics: the performance of government — that is, whether it delivers economic growth, equity and good public services — and the processes of government, meaning the sense that people see themselves being well represented, especially without the interference of corruption. That’s surely as true in America as it is in the U.K.
“Across both sets of factors,” IPPR noted, in a study published a little over a year ago, “it is worth noting that the perception of citizens matters as much as actual performance or process.”7 So while we ought to respond if government doesn’t perform well or if more politicians are corrupt, we also need to act if more people just think that’s the case.
And that’s where we are right now: We need to combat the sense that government can’t be trusted, because we can’t risk the consequences of doing nothing.
Those researchers across the pond offered some suggested fixes, some of which could be adapted to the U.S.A., and I have a couple of ideas in mind, too.
First, of course, government needs to help people achieve the lives they imagine for themselves. That means it must work to restore the economic health of the middle class, which has eroded over the past four decades, by stimulating investment that can create good jobs and by developing regional economies in areas hard-hit by these fast-changing times. Nothing can build stronger bonds of trust better than delivering on promises.
Second, we must embrace political reform, so that citizens know that their voices matter. That means implementing policies that encourage voting and political speech, and taking steps to curb the influence of big money in politics, which skews policy in favor of the wealthy. It means fighting the gerrymandering that diminishes the clout of traditionally under-represented groups, and trying to make sure that our politics reflects the whole range of the American people.
Third, we need to encourage civics education and news literacy training, so that young people grow up better able than their parents have been to discern truth from falsehood. Is it only coincidental that the fissures in American politics have widened during the quarter-century or so that Fox News and talk radio have been relentless voices of right-wing grievance, and that broadcasters have been freed from the Fairness Doctrine’s obligation to be fair brokers of information?
Finally, we need to strengthen our backbone, and hold politicians to a higher standard of truth-telling, even if it conflicts with our partisan leanings. For starters, we can’t accept that it’s OK for any member of Congress to echo Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election, because everybody in politics (including Trump) knows it’s not true. Kowtowing to that model of mendacity reflects nothing short of intolerably bad character that ought to be a disqualification from any public office. Political leaders and rank-and-file voters alike should be ashamed to associate with not only the likes of George Santos, but also with less blatant betrayers of democracy, because their acquiescence enables lies to take root.
Rebuilding trust in government is a big job, because government is everywhere. There are about a half-million elected officials in this country, and it remains true, I’m sure, that most of them strive to be honest and fair. Yes, there’s a lot of attention to the big talkers who seem to care more for the sound of their own voice than the honor of their good name, which they sacrifice by a careless relationship with the truth.
But the fibbers and comb-swipers aren’t the majority. Maybe the first step to getting that point across is to re-commit ourselves to putting them where they belong: out of office.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Savannah, Ga. (Savannah Morning News, savannahnow.com)
New Bedford, Mass. (Standard-Times, southcoasttoday.com)
St. Cloud, Minn. (St. Cloud Times, sctimes.com)
Oklahoma City, Okla. (The Oklahoman, oklahoman.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Glass recycling returns — but no curbside pickup yet
Many municipalities across America provide curbside pickup of mix recyclables, but the market for most recyclable material contracted a few years ago, and some areas discontinued recycling. Glass, which is fully recyclable, is especially problematic, and America recycles at a much lower rate than other countries. That was the case in Savannah, which recycled glass from 2009 to 2015 and then started landfilling it (while still picking up paper and plastic at curbside). Now, reports Will Peebles in the Savannah Morning News, a contractor has set up a pair of collection bins in the city to start recycling glass again. Given the uncertainty of the market for recycled glass, officials are wary, but hopeful. “I think that we'll have audit opportunities to make sure that they're doing what they say they're going to do. But if the vast majority of it doesn't end up in a landfill, I think it's a win,” Mayor Van Johnson said.
New funding enables expansion of reproductive health services
In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision nixing the constitutional right to abortion, many parts of the country have seen sharply reduced access to reproductive health services. Not so in Massachusetts: Kathryn Gallerani reports in the Standard-Times that a state grant will enable the expansion of medication abortion services to areas that until now have had only limited access. The state health commissioner said the goal was to provide access “to all Massachusetts residents and other individuals who may come to our state to seek care.”
Despite controversy, schools avoid book-banning
Nationwide, some 1,600 book titles have been removed from school libraries, according to PEN America, mostly a result of a conservative push against acquainting children with literature that has LGBTQ characters and themes. But some areas remain largely unaffected, according to reporting in the St. Cloud Times by Abdulla Gaafarelkhalifa. School board candidates who backed book banning lost their races in the fall, the article notes, and the procedures in place in schools in the St. Cloud area when there are questions about books’ suitability have proven satisfactory to parents and teachers. The procedure is “preemptive,” one school administrator noted: It requires teachers to fill out a form before introducing any new material, and then for review by a curriculum advisory committee made up of parents/guardians, administrators, and teachers."It lets teachers vet the resource and allows for feedback by families as well," she said.
State acts to rid classrooms of “far-left radicals”
A new state superintendent of schools has taken office in Oklahoma, and Ben Felder reports in The Oklahoman that he has moved quickly against teachers he accuses of “indoctrinating” students. Superintendent Ryan Walters is acting first to bar two teachers who he apparently believes have violated a new state law that limits what can be taught about race and gender. One of the teachers, Summer Boismier, drew national attention when she covered the bookshelves in her Norman High School classroom last year after the law was passed, and vowed “to err on the side of compassion and inclusivity.” She has since resigned and left the state, but Walters is moving to withdraw her teaching certification and that of a teacher in Tulsa. Walters said he also planned to purge the state Department of Education of employees he believes have been pushing "liberal indoctrination."
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For some of us, it’s hardly a choice: We have always been writers. I launched a neighborhood newspaper when I was 7 years old, won my home state’s top writing award for high school students when I was 17, became a newspaper editor at 21 and have kept going ever since. While I long considered myself a journalist first and a writer second, I have found great satisfaction in The UPSTATE AMERICAN: It is my favorite writing project yet, and I’m so grateful to each of you for joining me weekly, and giving me the encouragement to keep writing.
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