America is in crisis. More and more Americans are increasingly distrustful of America's leadership across the board. In one of the latest surveys, Pew Research found only 21% of respondents said they "just about always" or "most of the time" – 2% and 19% respectively -- trusted the government to do the right thing. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that number was 49%. These numbers should frighten everyone. It is hard to imagine how a country functions effectively if only 21% of its citizens believe they can trust their government to do the right thing most of the time. What does this mean and why are the numbers so low?
If the numbers are peeled back, there are more insights into how the American people perceive their government, according to a Partnership for Public Service survey. Fifty-five percent believe that the impact government has on the country is negative. Fifty-five percent of the people do not believe that the government helps people like them. Almost two thirds believe that government is not transparent and does not listen to the public. These numbers are so low, it is little wonder the number of people who trust the government has not gone above 30% in Pew's surveys since 2007.
The American people do trust business leaders more. A Harvard Business School survey suggests that 61% of the American people trust businesses (Of note, the trust for government in this poll was 52%). The Harvard researchers say for a group to be identified as trusted they must have a 60% favorable rating. Government and media both fail to reach this target, and both have fallen significantly in recent years while business has remained relatively stable.
The key point here is regardless of what poll you are looking at, America's institutions do not consistently meet thresholds that most individuals believe indicate a strong public support. This is highly problematic for our nation. Some would argue the events on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, are a clear indicator of this lack of trust in government. Many of the people present on January 6th did not accept the results of the 2020 presidential election and were protesting the outcome. There were clearly just too many irregularities (such as here, here and here) for them to believe that Joe Biden had won fair and square. Believing in free and fair elections is a bedrock principle of representative government; without it, the critical support needed to underpin our entire system is gone.
How is it that so many Americans have such negative views about our leadership and the direction of our nation? For 15 years I worked for a company, Herman Miller, recognized for its leadership principles. The company stressed the importance of servant leadership: leaders served those who worked for them. They also had a responsibility to customers, shareholders, vendors, and their community. It was a balanced approach with multiple constituencies. Integrity and honesty were fundamental to effective leadership. Finally, accountability and results were key parts of the leadership equation that were expected parts of doing your job. It is concerning that so many of these good, honest tenets have been lost across our society today -- especially in our government.
The dramatic decline in government support numbers can perhaps be traced to the response and aftermath of 9/11. While the "rally round the flag" effect led to an initial positive response to the government's actions, people soon began to focus on one basic fact: The government had failed in its most important function, which is to protect its citizens from attack. The war in Iraq that followed was based on an inaccurate intelligence assessment that Saddam Hussein had an active weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. This became a bitter partisan divide with some believing that the decision to go to war was based on incorrect information, while others believed that the Bush administration had lied to build support to invade Iraq.
As I noted, however, in 2006 based on an intelligence report I demanded be declassified, there were WMDs found in Iraq. They were in varying states and conditions, and led to the injury of some members of our Armed Forces, but they did not point to the ongoing program Americans had been led to believe existed. The New York Times more recently validated this WMD finding, which had largely been swept under the rug for political expediency.
We recently marked the 20-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq; since that time, our country has experienced the financial crisis of 2008, the Arab Spring and war with ISIS from 2011-2015. The aftermath of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya all had negative outcomes. The Biden administration's deadly and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 only contributed to the view that the federal government is failing in doing its job effectively.
Beyond government mismanagement of multiple U.S. war efforts, Americans have seen so many examples of outright government deceit. FBI and intelligence leaders fostered the notion that President-elect Trump was compromised by Russia. The "Russia hoax" persisted for more than two years as a cloud over the head of President Trump and incapacitated the country. Congressional leaders such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff promised the American people that he had direct evidence about Trump that warranted the president's impeachment. Later, it became clear that he did not, but that has not stopped him from continuing to push his fabrication as he mounts a Senate bid in California. Fifty-one intelligence professionals and leaders signed a letter implying that the Hunter Biden laptop was disinformation and not real. They were all wrong.
Investigations into the origins of the COVID pandemic, continuing attempts to set up some version of a Department of Misinformation and Disinformation – read: the government deciding for you what "truth" is, then punishing citizens who might disagree -- and the weaponization of the government against citizens ongoing in the House of Representatives may expose even more examples of the federal government bureaucracy being deceitful in its interactions with the American people.
Another recent and galling example of government double dealing that has frustrated citizens is President Joe Biden's push to make taxpayers pay off other students' loans. It is clear that those students who took out loans are receiving better treatment from the government than those students who saved, worked hard, and paid their college tuition. Those who decided to enter the trades or decided not to attend college at all will receive no benefit from this latest example government largesse, apart from the dubious distinction of paying higher taxes to cover the loans of people who did have a higher education and presumably should be helping the very people bailing them out, not preying off them.
Finally, customers of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), primarily high-tech startups and their employees, will have all of their deposits insured by the government while customers at other regional banks might not. Among SVB's customers are many Chinese companies that are being fully covered while citizens impacted by the East Palestine train derailment have found out they do not qualify for traditional FEMA disaster assistance. It is hard to build trust in citizens when the government seemingly treats one group better than it treats others.
The federal government has clearly not demonstrated the characteristics of "servant leadership" that our nation so desperately needs. On key policies it has failed miserably, from 9/11 to the latest crisis rocking the banking industry. That is 20 years of epic, systemic government failures. Throw in deception by some of the highest-ranking government officials and bailouts of foreign interests while U.S. citizens are left hanging, and you get why barely a fifth of Americans have faith in their leaders. Incompetence, deception, and working against the interests of the American people leave little wonder as to why people have lost trust in our government.
Peter Hoekstra was US Ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration. He served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the second district of Michigan, served as Chairman and Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.