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Editorial: Gov’t transparency does not equal trust

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 08, 2015 5:00 AM

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It is the nature of Americans to doubt and question their government. The United States was founded by a group of people that did not trust its governing body, the British; they were people who questioned authority. The Founding Fathers questioned King George III and his imperialistic reign by creating the most important document in this nation’s history, the Declaration of Independence.

Today, this lack of trust in government appears to be quite strong. According to recent data collected by the Pew Research Center and others, the percentage of Americans who trust the federal government to do the right thing is at a relatively low; 24 percent, the New York Times reports.

This question was first asked in 1958, when the American National Election Study found that 73 percent of those Americans polled put their faith in the federal government “some” or “most” of the time. Since 1958, different organizations have also begun to ask this question, resulting in the indication that since the late-50s, on the whole, trust in the federal government has dropped fairly drastically.

Trust in the government, as expected, waxes and wanes with the scenarios that unfold in the country and around the world. For example, the Times article reports that economic swings during Reagan’s precedency, 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all had major effects on how Americans viewed the federal government.

Moreover, party lines sway the overall trust in the government. Democrats are more likely to trust Democratic administrations, and Republicans are more likely to trust Republican administrations. These swings are not surprising. What is surprising is the fairly constant, overall trend of administration-after-administration decrease in trust. And although there are certainly several factors at play, one of the largest is increased transparency as the Information Age progresses.

As the federal government has become more transparent, Americans see deeper into the inner-workings of the country, and as it turns out, this may not not have the most ideal results in trust.

In the years since Vietnam and Watergate, transparency in the federal government has increased fairly dramatically. While the openness of government may appear to be a good thing on the surface, the diminishing trust level may prove to strengthen the adage that “ignorance is bliss.”

The Times article concludes that decreasing trust as transparency grows is not restricted to governmental organizations; it has been seen in banks, courts, and several other types of institutions.

Nobody hopes that the U.S. government acts as Big Brother (despite the NSA’s hardest attempts), but there also must be some level of division between what members of the public ought to know and what they need not know. The important thing going forward is for federal government to find a spot between the likes of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden and the airtight Nixon administration.

The U.S. people should not give in entirely; transparency and trust ought not be mutually exclusive notions in American society. Ultimately, the hope would be that the federal government can be both transparent and trustworthy, but in the meantime, if Americans wish to trust their government entirely, they may wish to lighten up on transparency demands — unfortunate though that may be.


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