Distrust in Government Leads to Desire for… Big Government?

The lead informational tidbit making the rounds in the Ocean State, today, is Gallup’s finding that Rhode Islanders are second only to Illinoisans in their lack of confidence in state government.  Now, this topic is rich political-philosophical ground on which my curiosity itches to be sated, but this post is a quick lunchtime note, so I’m afraid I’ll just have to throw a bunch of thoughts onto the field and maybe return to the subject later.

The quick observations of the poll results are that the Northeast, in general, doesn’t do very well, and Republican states tend to do better.  In New England, New Hampshire actually makes the national top 10 list for confidence, although Massachusetts is not far behind.  One might wonder if Massachusetts residents develop their high regard for state government largely by contrasting it with near neighbors in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York, which are all at the bottom of the barrel.

The American Interest, though, asks a key question:

Of course, not all red states beat out their blue competitors. Louisiana and Kansas both do relatively poorly (we’ve written before about why Kansas’ “red dawn” fizzled out). But the states with the biggest entrenched blue model bureaucracies are some of the most poorly governed in the country, and that their residents know it. How long before they stand up to Big Blue and try something new?

Those of us who live in one of those states (especially after we just watched a giant insider-grab-bag infrastructure plan with new tolls pushed through state government with clarifying ease) know the answer to be a bit more complicated than that.  By way of evidence, consider a few earlier findings from Gallup:

  • Americans generally trust government more as it becomes more local.  Only 45% of Americans trust the federal government on international issues, and even fewer, 38%, trust it on domestic issues.  However, trust increases to 62% at the state level and 72% at the local level.
  • Democrats trust central government more, while Republicans trust local government more. Pretty consistently over the past 15-20 years, Republicans have expressed substantially more trust in both state and local government than Democrats.  Currently, at the state level, it’s 73% (Republican) to 59% (Democrat), and at the local level, it’s 81% (Republican) and 70% (Democrat).

To some extent, these opinions may reflect political success.  Democrats, in general, have had greater success at the federal level, of late, so it’s not surprising they’d trust that tier of government more.  With the election of Barack Obama, for example, liberals’ confidence in the presidency, as an institution, leaped from 10% to 80%.

But what about those Rhode Island findings, then?  Democrats dominate, here.  Obviously, I can’t expect to be read as an unbiased observer, but I wonder if these numbers suggest that Democrats and progressives support distant government more because, at that level, they can still continue to ignore the internal contradictions and obvious inadequacies of their philosophy.

After all, the reason conservatives prefer the local level is that we can better observe what’s going on and work to change course.  We know government is bound to be messy, so we want it where we can control it.  It may be that progressives see the mess and difficulty of local politics and, rather than question whether we should really entrust a growing scope of responsibilities to the institution of government, conclude that the problem must just be something on the small scale, or in their particular town or state, that’s causing the problem.

In this view, their notion that government can and should act as a sort of corporate board for all of society isn’t the problem, but rather the fact that non-progressives, acting from some sort of wicked or base motivation, are able to influence things is the problem.  If only the power of government can be placed outside of reach, by winning the presidency by any means necessary every four years and vesting that office and the Supreme Court with insurmountable authority, then the progressive (or Berning socialist) vision can be made to work.  History strongly suggests that it cannot, but that can’t be proven decisively at a particular time and place until we’ve handed over enough of our rights that they cannot be reclaimed easily.

In partial answer to The American Interest’s question, I’d point to the Raimondo-Brookings approach to suggest that the promoters of Big Blue still have a number of illusions up their sleeves with which to mystify the residents over whose lives they claim control.  The Brookings Institution prescription for Rhode Island is the result when the basic political philosophy and structure cannot be changed.  When you’re not willing to entertain the possibility that a governing elite does not know best, you must come up with elaborate schemes in which geniuses in Washington, D.C., and the State House pick and choose incentives as if operating the levers of some vast machine, preferably with the important decisions made beyond the reach of voters’ right to transparency and input.

Part of that machine is devoted to changing the demographic makeup of the population and using political leverage and public resources to seed the entire landscape with people and organizations who have personal financial incentive to keep the scheme going, no matter what it does to everybody else.  Meanwhile, policies like campaign finance reform that regulate free speech, when it’s political, make it more difficult for those not in on the plot to have a say.

The people of Rhode Island and the rest of Big Blue may have already ceded too much ground for them to try something new, even if they want to do so.

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