Can Anyone Be Trusted?

Author: Gary Hart

At no time in my long life has confidence in government been lower. That seems to be true not just in the United States but in many if not most parts of the world. Much of this, of course, has to do with recurring recession and financial crises in many countries, especially where young people have little if any prospect for employment.
Although we can’t solve this problem in other countries, we can at least explore its causes here at home. My view is that anger toward government is directly related to the noxious and incestuous networks in Washington and, truth be known, in most State capitals.
Sometime in the 1970s and 80s campaigning for office became heavily dependent on television. Television costs money. The most readily available source of money is special interest groups. Once in office, elected officials reward these contributors with access. Their wants and needs get first attention. There is always the next election to think about.
During this same period the lobbying industry exploded. There was money to be made, large amounts of money, in brokering the exchange between special interest groups and candidates. Who possibly could be more skilled at this than former staff members in Congress and previous administrations. So the revolving door began to spin full tilt. Then, even former elected officials, their wives, and children joined this complex circus.
No one involved in this corrupt behavior seemed to be concerned whether the American people would notice or, if they did notice, whether they would care. Indeed, quite often voters returned some of the worst offenders, those up to their eyeballs in special interest politics, to office over and over again. So, an official could join the corruption and lose little (except perhaps self-respect).
Then, a few months back the whole corrupt system got a good housekeeping seal of approval from none other than the Supreme Court of the United States. Who after all would want to deny corporations the right to “free speech”, as if they weren’t already buying the political results they wanted. If you needed any proof that justice was indeed blind, this was it.
Good government groups continue to battle this corruption, and their agendas are always pretty much the same: campaign finance reform; public financing of campaigns; campaign spending limits; extended bans on lobbying after leaving office; public disclosure of contributions; and much else. Like ancient King Canute, however, they continue to shovel against the tide.
It is enough to make even an aging idealist despair. Seeing no hope of massive anti-corruption reform anytime soon, we must fall back on our last resort—the very voters who claim to be so angry. One word, folks: vote them out, including the ones who bring government-sponsored projects home even as they decry the growth of government.
We can’t have it both ways, folks.

25 Responses to “Can Anyone Be Trusted?”

  1. Brent Finster Says:

    Gary –

    I agree with all of your remarks (as I always do!), however there is one sentence that doesn’t seem appropriate: “it gives incest a bad name”. I’m not sure that is the best way to get that particular point across. Incest is a terrible thing in itself and to compare that with similarities regarding special interests in Washington (or states, as you so rightfully point out) confuses the discussion and glorifies unspeakable acts.


    Brent Finster

  2. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    The notion of voters as our last resort does not inspire confidence.

  3. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    “Can anyone be trusted?”

    “Has Osama bin Laden won after all?”

    I’m growing weary of these types of questions which have increased exponentially during the tenure of the Obama/Biden administration and which would tend to play into the game of self-fulfilling prophecies and the worst instincts of voters who fail or refuse to understand what is being done to further and protect their interests despite their curious lack of support and, indeed, their self-defeating opposition.

    A better question to ask is why people insisted on voting against their own intersts and those of their country in 2010 and why they seem unable to recognize that divided government today is the equivalent of dysfunctional government.

    Why is that narrative not getting out and instead we are seeing enlightened political analysts resorting to asking questions that only succeed in promoting increased voter apathy and cynicism and do nothing to inform their votes?

  4. August J. Le Boeuf Says:

    The conundrum has an answer: Elected officials should be required to be graduates of Statesmanship schools. The survival of democracy is dependent on successful representative government; and that is conditioned upon the practice of electing to public offices only those individuals who are technically trained, intellectually competent, socially loyal, and morally fit. Only by such provisions can a government of the people, by the people, and for the people be preserved.

  5. Gary Hart Says:

    To Mr. Finster, the line you question was perhaps too graphic an attempt to characterize the depth of the matter. Obviously, there was no intent to offend and if offense was taken, I apologize.
    And to Ms. Miller, the title question, as with most headlines, was to frame an issue for consideration. It is not the author’s intent to focus criticism on this particular administration but rather on a political system that has become increasingly corrupt, in the classic republican sense, in my active lifetime. And it is my individual attempt to explore how and why special interest politics have so transcended the public good.

  6. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I understand that completely and the question of why special interest groups have accumulated so much power as to make bad policy inevitable needs desperately to be explored.

    I am just worried that headlines like that do more harm than good. I guess I’d just like to see the framing done in a more positive manner …

    And … Ms Miller!? … that’s not really necessary! 🙂

  7. Pat Boice Says:

    Truer words were never spoken, Gary Hart!! I refuse to become apathetic but the temptation is there! I see very little light at the end of the tunnel. I totally agree with your words about TV and the need for tons of money to pay for campaign TV ads. At the very least, the TV stations should be required to provide a certain amount of free air-time to politicians, and what would really be wonderful would be reform that included a limited length of time for campaigning, and no paid TV advertising!! But, I dream on!

    Great comments today also!

  8. Giacomella Milesi Ferretti Says:

    I agree with your analysis Gary and fully appreciate your remarks. As I am living in a tragically decadent and corrupt democracy, the Italian one, I am particularly hit by your criticism of the way the political systems, generally speaking (including the Italian one, are failing to take care of the public good. Too many particular and private interests are being promoted and protected, and the political parties have become “special interest groups” sponsored by special interest groups, that care mainly about their groups’ interests…

  9. Gary Hart Says:

    This seems to be a day for apologies and for matters of style. Occasionally, I am taken to task for the use of last names and formal addresses. As one old enough to be put off by the 18 year old on the phone calling me “Gary”, I confess to an upbringing and sense of respect for others that causes me to address those whom it has not been my pleasure to meet with that same respect. It is admittedly anachronistic to be burdened with a sense of formality in an age of overwhelming informality.

  10. MinerSam Says:

    In a world in which people are busy with their lives who ones sources are critical to ones life.

    Unfortunately most people believe what they read on the Internet even though it is an IF garbage in THEN garbage out device.

    Meanwhile the Republicans and the 6 corporations that control our Media THRIVE UPON AND THEREFORE PERPETUATE Ignorance & Division and together are blowing Out of context and bold faced lies i.e. carbon monoxide into the Information Pipelines so critical to an informed electorate.

    And those (overpaid mornons) who call themselves “Pundits” are not only an insult to the real pundits (the wise teachers of the east) But an assult on Informed Intelligence.

    The result of the Psycholigical Abuse of the Electorate by the Radical right wing Totalitarian Republicans is that Conventional Wisdom is just a clump of Calcified misinformation leading voters to vote for image over substance which only benefits the Propagandists.

    And were I running against all of them My Slogan would be:

    “It’s not Washington or just George Bush (King of the Tea Party!), It’s the Predatory Anti We the People Republicans Stupid!!They hate our Government and destroy it when in charge!”

  11. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I’m sorry, Senator Hart.

    Most of us here, I would wager, have a similar upbringing that has been largely based on respect for others. And, we are all different insofar as how we wish to be addressed. Some of us, for example … ahem … absolutely cringe when we are referred to as ‘Ma’am’ – ESPECIALLY when they are 18 years of age! It just makes us feel old, you understand. 🙁

    In any event, you have a great blog here where there can be enlightened discussion and debate on the challenging issues before us, conducted with respect for both the views of others and of our own individual idiosyncracies. And, there is no need to apologize for that!

  12. Betsy Meier Says:

    It’s terribly frustrating watching and reading how much corruption is in Congress, yet as Senator Hart says, they are re-elected over and over again. And sadly the internet has proven to be more of a gossip board and constant untruths about some elected officials. I have many right wing friends who relish the smear tactics that have gone on against the President. Almost all untrue, yet we have a large body of voters who believe anything they hear because they don’t research and inform themselves. There lies the problem with today’s voters, in my opinion. TV and the internet have brought politics to a new “low”.

  13. Gary Hart Says:

    To Ms. Miller: thank you for your kind comments, Ma’am.
    (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.)

  14. Bill Pruden Says:

    As a high school history and government teacher, I have said repeatedly, in this forum and others, that one of the greatest challenges of our timer is to get the current generation of young people engaged and active in our political system. Nothing is more central to that challenge than the issue of trust. While the death toll in Vietnam was tragic, to me the greater tragedy of the war, coupled with the Watergate scandal that followed soon after, was the end of trust in government. Indeed, trying to explain to a generation raised in the aftermath of those events how someone like Senator Joe McCarthy could make and have people believe the charges he did is an impossibility so cynical are modern students—and rightly so. And of course the narrow agendas and careerist impulse of too many modern office holders only increase the distrust, and reinforces a view that government is not for the many but rather for the few. We must get people involved who want to serve –who do not believe that there is a career trajectory for politics, but rather that there is an obligation, a responsibility, to serve and contribute—before going back to doing what one does. The realities of money in politics make it hard for someone to simply step up and seek office, but it is something we need to see. We need to see a different type of motivation for those who would serve. Only after a few cycles of serving and stepping down would we see a restoration of that much needed trust. Again, from the perspective of a history teacher, I have always believed that for all his greatness, the most important thing that George Washington did was to walk away, stepping aside, willingly giving up power, after his two terms. Not only did it engender trust among his fellow countrymen, but it sent a message about his trust in the system he had labored so hard to establish. The trust embodied in that act is something that we need to recapture–and soon.

  15. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Senator Hart,

    Well, that was cringe-worthy, alright … and, very funny, too.
    (In future, you should resist.)

  16. George Harben Says:

    Senator Hart, I always enjoy your commentary and usually learn something. However, this one troubles me. How can a republic survive if we do not trust our elected officials? Yes, alot of money is spent and raised, but it is not your or my money. It is an individual or PAC money. People make a choice to to spend their limited resources giving to campaigns as opposed to other activities.

    It occurs to me that campaigns are about a set of ideas competing in the market place (election). It takes money to get a message out, organize volunteers, etc. What I think most people forget is a repubic is difficult, it is not meant to be easy. It is meant to be challenging, every day. We forget that a republic calls for involvement AND responsibility.

    Yes, I realize this is simplistic and reforms are needed. However, saying our elected officials are corrupt, then charge, arrest, try and jail them.

    How can you or any American believe that so many of our elected officials are that corrupt? Senator Hart, you served with great honor in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, how many of your fellow senators in your opinion were corrupted by the system in place? I bet it is a very low number. I firmly believe that the overwhelming majority men and women that run and those that win are honorable people with honorable intentions.

  17. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    “Can anyone be trusted?”

    The answer to that question is a resounding ‘Yes!’

    Unfortunately, the public servants in our midst who do give real meaning to the notion that politics can still be an honourable profession are seldom given public praise for their tireless efforts. On top of that, it seems that people have become so conditioned to see all politics and politicians through a thick prism of cynicism that they are prevented from making a clear assessment of who can be trusted and who should be supported. With yet another critical and consequential election on the horizon, this can create a very, very dangerous environment.

    I guess that’s why I have a kind of visceral reaction to the framing of issues using questions and headlines that tend to accentuate the negative in an era where there is already an overabundance of negativity and much of it misdirected, at that.

  18. Gary Hart Says:

    In response to recent comments: keep in mind that the original blog used the phrase “corrupt in the classic republic sense.” The ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as America’s founders, defined corrupt as putting personal or special interest before the commmon good. That is the way in which the phrase is used in this blog site. By that definition, we are today a massively corrupt republic. This is not money-under-the-table corruption. This is decent and honorable Members of Congress spending hours each day calling individuals and organizations to raise money for the next election. And those contributers get access. This is not my impression. This is what people in office today tell me. And as to civil servants, they are honorable and decent. My first two jobs were in the US Departments of Justice and Interior. These are dedicated people. This blog is addressing a system of campaigns and elections which give special interests priority in the public arena. That is why so many Americans are angry. They know it is not right.

  19. Jim Engelking Says:

    I think the best demonstration of the corrupt politics of our times is the fact that after the corrupt Supreme Court decision in “Citizens United” case, neither the President nor the Congress took action to remove its effect by legislation nor a proposed constitutional amendment. Nor have Americans demanded either. It’s good old fashioned American corruption. And Americans don’t care about it. Watch Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” on PBS. I believe that the corruption of one person does not demand the corruption of another.

    Currently an experiment in democracy is in progress in Massachusetts, where teabagger favorite Scott Brown, with his current $11 billion Wall Street war chest, faces the prospect of a challenge from the incorrupt Elizabeth Warren, with her almost $1 billion raised in a month from the nation’s grassroots. Watch the corrupt Scott Walker’s anticipated recall election in Wisconsin, and observe whether the corrupting Koch Brothers can prevail over the desire for the values long held by the people of that state. The actions of the American people in those and other coming electoral contests will tell all of us a lot about who we are and what we value. And how we respond to $billions of TV ads and other political marketing.

  20. Chris R. Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    My opinion is that elections in the U.S. have become about voting against a candidate, and not voting for someone. This phenomenon was perhaps best captured by the British novelist, Douglas Adams:

    ‘”It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see….”
    “You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
    “No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
    “Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
    “I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
    “So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”
    “It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
    “You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
    “Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
    “But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
    “Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”‘
    -Douglas Adams, in So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish (1984) Ch. 36

    The satire aside, there is a connection here between this and your previous blog entry on populism. Historically, third parties in the U.S. emerged to address issues which the major parties had ignored. Recent trends with ballot access laws and litigation to keep candidates off the November ballots have removed the time honored “protest vote” from many voters. (The Democratic Party’s scorched earth legal campaign against Ralph Nader comes to mind. Something is very wrong with the modern Democratic Party if it believes that Mr. Nader is its enemy.)

    If we truly wish to reform elections, then I suggest that the place to start is to remove ballot access limitations for independent candidates and third parties, and also to require run-off elections when a candidate does not receive a bare majority of votes cast for that office. This would return elections to permitting a positive vote, rather than the tolerating the “lesser of two evils” system. The negative campaigning, when elections cease to be about issues and devolve into mud slinging, creates much of the demand for advertising money. In this way we might return elections to Holmes’s “marketplace of ideas” rather than the massively corrupt system which you have so accurately described.

  21. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Senator Hart,

    I was a great fan of the late Senator and Governor Lawton Chiles of Florida and especially the way that he personally limited campaign contributions. He only accepted contributions from individuals from the State of Florida of no more than $5.00 per individual. No PAC money, no corporate money, no large individual contributions. I also lived in the State of North Carolina during a period when a United States Senator of that state during a highly contested reelection received more than 75% of his campaign funding from persons, corporations, and PAC’s outside of the State of North Carolina. Did this Senator have more interest in representing the citizens of the State of North Carolina or the special interests outside of the State?

    A simple first step to campaign finance reform would be: 1) Funds can only be obtained within the district in which the candidate is seeking election; 2) No campaign contribution of more than $20.00 can be accepted from any one contributor; and 3) No campaign contribution can be accepted from anyone other than individual citizens. I realize that the Unites States Supreme Court recently ruled that corporations have a right (as a citizen) to make campaign contributions. If that is the case then limit the amount of the contribution to that of the individual citizen and to only corporations with their principal place of business established within the district in which the candidate is seeking election.

    Any candidate willing to abide by these rules would earn the trust of their constituents and those who don’t would be suspect in their intentions.

  22. John Boyd Says:

    Senator Hart,

    “America Can Win” the economic war. The government just needs to encourage US corporations to work together to beat foreign corporations. One of the biggest mistakes this country made, was to sell out our industry to China and India (dumb).

    John Boyd

  23. Paul G Says:

    “Seeing no hope of massive anti-corruption reform anytime soon, we must fall back on our last resort—the very voters who claim to be so angry. One word, folks: vote them out …” – GH

    “People don’t know what they want until you show them!” – Steve Jobs

    “Dear 1%, We The People fell asleep. Just worke up. Sincerely, The 99%”

    White House occupant who won’t take $1M from Goldman Sachs? – Good Job

    Job ad – Just over the horizon 🙂

  24. Paul G Says:

    ‘Tis the best of times for Wall Street and the worst of times for Main Street; but our “Leaders of Change” still don’t get it!

  25. Jim Engelking Says:

    I am encouraged that there may be many Americans who agree with Chris R on ballot access and requiring a majority of votes to win elections, and with Mr Pillow on campaign finnce reform. Over 100,000 of us signed up on in a week.

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