About 10 years ago, or maybe even 10 or 15, we, as many newspapers did, received a letter from former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. The message stuck with us all these years mainly because Mr. Hamilton, a centrist Democrat, lamented the extent to which his constituents had come to so rely on government.
Back in the ’60s, when Mr. Hamilton, now 88, was just starting a 34-year career representing the Hoosier State’s 9th District, he recalls seldom seeing his constituents until there was a dire necessity. Over time, though, more and more of those supposedly hardy Hoosiers were ringing their congressman for help. Mr. Hamilton never minded lending a hand, but he did wonder greatly about the diminution of self-reliance.
Well, maybe some of that classic trait is re-emerging, or maybe it’s been happening for more time than we think. It could be that Americans — perhaps bearing what they thought was too much of a good thing (“gummint”) — started looking back some time ago to municipal organizations and old-standbys (families, churches, business and civic groups) to provide a little more of what government once did. If this is true, it is news to us, for we’ve yet to truly see it.
But a poll by Scott Rasmussen shows that a mere 19 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing, and 42 percent seldom or never trust it.
One might think these numbers are byproducts of the Obama and/or Trump administrations, but there’s a reason we introduced the Hamilton letter at the top of this editorial. The last time a majority of voters trusted the government most of the time was 47 years go — 1972, or just around the time Hamilton’s constituents and the rest of America realized government wasn’t all it cracked up to be. But here’s the rub: They kept going back for more, maybe thinking government would reform itself.
That has yet to happen, though we think many people voted for Donald Trump believing it would. And may very well give him a second shot to see if he can effect needed change.
Or, as Mr. Rasmussen concluded, maybe Americans no longer believe government has as huge a role as it once had. In fact, in that same poll, only 14 percent ceded the lead role to the government. Which means that, for just this fleeting moment and maybe more, the old Burkean concept of “small platoons” (those local organizations, mainly of consumers rather than voters, solving problems on their own), may usurp some of the powers government has massively accrued over time.
The poll numbers suggest this change may be burgeoning, but as much as conservatives would love to see it, we’re not holding our breath. For all the poll respondents’ hopes and observations, government remains everywhere.