Authored by Erin Norman via RealClear Politics (emphasis ours),
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Over the following two years, details of this scandal that originated at the very highest levels of our government trickled out to the public until President Nixon was forced to resign in August, 1974.
The encounter with a president’s open lust for power had a dramatic impact on how Americans viewed government generally. Pew Research Center has data on the amount of trust Americans have in their government to do what is right “about always” or “most of the time,” going back seventy years. In the 1950s, trust in government was high, at 73%. By the time Americans went to the polls to vote for Nixon, trust was down 11 points to 62% – due in large part to the conflict in Vietnam, showing what a large but policy-driven dip in trust can look like. By August of 1974 when Nixon resigned, just 36% of Americans had a high level of trust in the government.
Faith in our government to do the right thing never recovered. Trust eroded even further during the second half of the 1970s. For all of Reagan’s optimism and “reforming government” mantra, under his leadership trust in government never cracked 50%. In fact, it would reach levels on par with the 1950s and 1960s for only a brief moment – immediately after 9/11. Even that spike was short-lived, followed by a steady decline to 20% today.
Even the briefest read of the Watergate scandal makes it clear why we lost trust in our government. Why we never regained that trust is harder to understand. Community involvement and civic engagement started dropping off around the same time, which likely played a significant role.
The turbulent ’70s flowed into the 1980s, when a greater emphasis was put on individualism, putting more focus on the self than in groups. The rise of individualism made it more likely for people to disengage from civic connections prized by the generations that came before them. Women entering the workforce in greater numbers and the adoption of no-fault divorce dramatically shifted what typical family life looked like. Further, rapidly evolving technology made entertainment at home possible and even preferable to traditional leisure time activities with more formality.
And while home and societal shifts over time are inevitable, a shift away from community and civic engagement is detrimental to the American way of life. Our system of government is designed to work with participation and attention from an active citizenry. Yet in the 50 years since Watergate rightly shook our trust in government, we largely shifted away from the more fulfilling and productive local political clubs and community committees in favor of contentious online commentary, political virtue signaling, and complete disengagement.
Nixon didn’t cause these societal changes, but the distrust in government he fostered added to it, changing the way Americans band together in self-governance. If, as former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank said, “government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together,” then our trust in government reflects a lack of trust in, and willingness to join together with, our fellow Americans for a common cause. By rebuilding trust and engagement in our communities, we can start to address the dangerously low level of trust we have in our government.
On this milestone anniversary, many comparisons are being made between Nixon and former President Trump, especially with congressional hearings regarding Jan. 6, 2021 underway. Indeed, televised hearings were a turning point for Nixon, ultimately leading to the loss of public support which forced his resignation. But more likely, the Jan. 6 hearings will simply feed America’s hunger for political drama as entertainment. Americans must redirect this energy to more productive forms of civic engagement if they wish to see the frequency and severity of such hearings, and scandals, subside.
Whatever the outcome of these hearings, one lesson we can take from Watergate half a century ago is to understand that the outcome of any hearing or trial cannot repair the damage that has been done. In total, 48 Nixon administration officials were found guilty of crimes, and a president voluntarily left the White House for the first and only time in U.S. history. But punishing bad actors and subsequent changes in federal laws did not rebuild our institutions.
Rebuilding must happen in, and be driven by, local communities. And local communities need citizen engagement to thrive. When people show up, to both public and private initiatives in the community, it becomes apparent they have real common ground with neighbors that can build the trust now crumbling away in most facets of life. Citizen engagement in the local government process helps Americans see the formalized process and safeguards, including the accountability their presence brings, built into our public institutions. Engagement coupled with social connections makes it more feasible for a community to band together and accomplish something in self-governance during a crisis. If the people do not trust the nation’s institutions, they must step up to supervise, reform, or replace them as necessary.
Government’s role is to encourage civil society and listen to what it has to say while largely staying out of the way.