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Matthew Sanders: Imploding trust in America's institutions

Published: Friday, May 17 2013 11:57 a.m. MDT

Reporters raise their hands as White House press secretary Jay Carney takes questions during his daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May, 14, 2013. Carney touched on various topics including the Justice Department's secretly obtaining two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press and IRS.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP

Three major scandals exploded onto the scene in Washington this past week escalating into a perfect storm that involves money, media and security.

Evidence and outrage continue to mount concerning the IRS' unconscionable targeting of conservative and religious groups during the run up to the 2012 presidential election. The president has excused the tax agency's director, and congressional committees seek even more accountability.

The justice department sought to excuse its brazen, secret gathering of Associated Press phone records as a justifiable effort to plug leaks that threaten security. Yet, the department's head, Eric Holder, claims to know nothing about such an extraordinary First Amendment incursion.

Whistleblowers and newly released emails have reignited the debate over the Obama administration's handling of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last fall. The new evidence calls into serious question the talking points delivered by the administration that blamed the attacks on a YouTube video rather than terrorism. That the obfuscation took place during election season is particularly troubling.

With Republicans sensing blood in the water and Democrats panicking, the American public can expect a constant barrage of finger pointing and shrill hyperbole. While the current outrage is justified, neither party is free of blame for the confidence crisis — where trust in key institutions has been sliding for 20 years.

According to a Gallup tracking poll that measures trust in government, 81 percent of respondents think government does what is right only part of the time or never. When extrapolated, it means that more than 190 million adults distrust government.

Now take the news media, a self-proclaimed watchdog of government waste and excess. When asked about mass media to report news fairly and accurately, 60 percent of respondents also strongly distrust — which represents more than around 140 million adults.

What about banks? Gallup's data show banks have also suffered a confidence drop of more than 50 percent in the past decade, suffering a low of only 21 percent in 2012. So, around 186 million adults lack confidence in banks.

When looked at by political affiliation, both parties place most trust in the military, while neither trust Congress. They express similar confidence in small business, the health system, religion and the judiciary. But they predictably diverge when it comes to news media, police, big business, organized labor and the current presidency. Interestingly, only the military, small business and organized religion garner more than 50 percent trust from both parties.

The three converging scandals plunge the executive branch into disrepute, which is a failure paid for by all Americans. It will surely accelerate America's eroding trust and build cynicism in a generation of young people already shaken by recession and global volatility.

So, what is to be done by you and me? What can we, so far from the halls of power, do as responsible citizens to help reshape America yet again into a nation that inspires the world?

Shaping America's institutions

First, we must remember the nature of government. Government overreach is predictable. Based on mountains of historical evidence, we know that power corrupts, and government, even with the best of intent, will push its bounds.

Second, we must participate in developing and delivering good governance. In the United States, power is granted to the U.S. government through the Constitution and the will of its citizens as they vote for new representatives and laws. Its success depends upon participation. Whenever and wherever we as a people see tendencies to build narrow paths to power with limited accountabity, we must seek redress and reform.

Third, we must individually commit to improve the quality of our citizenship. The founders built the scaffolding of this bold experiment of a nation on the concepts of personal morality, individual rights and civic virtue. It is each of our opportunity to voluntarily contribute to society our noblest character, our productivity and our best judgment.

Fourth, we must teach the rising generation the true nature of citizenship. It is truly painful to watch our nation's capitol rocked with yet another round of indiscretion and shame. Yet we cannot miss the opportunity to instruct our children about the social contract that exists in the United States between citizens and its government. We must help them understand what has built and kept this country at its best.

The United States is not a land of entitlements. It is a land of opportunity. It is not a land of classes, but a land of inalienable rights. It is not a land of a political elite, but of political service. It is not a land of unchecked power and permissiveness. It is not a land of fear, but of faith and hope.

Matthew studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He is a GM at at Deseret Digital Media where he oversees Publisher Solutions. msanders@deseretnews.com or @Sanders_Matt

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