Fed up with the Feds

January 23, 1998

Why has the US public lost faith in government? If anyone should know it is political scientist and friend of premiers, Joseph Nye. He talks to Huw Richards.

Bob Dole did not get to be president in 1996. But his failed campaign to dislodge Bill Clinton from the White House is still likely to leave its mark on the thinking of political analysts.

Dole, a Washington insider for almost the whole of his adult life, ran for the presidency as a critic of the capital and its works. As one Democrat voter commented: "You almost felt sorry for him, feeling he had to attack Washington when he obviously loves the place." For Joseph Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University "Dole's campaign was the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of the trend that almost all candidates run negative campaigns attacking government."

Of course candidates, particularly those with Dole's history, do not run such campaigns for the hell of it. Ever since Jimmy Carter emerged from the governorship of Georgia to take the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 1976, the conventional wisdom has been that you have to appear to be anti-Washington, and by extension anti-government, to capture its highest post.

It is a trend that worried Nye, 61, sufficiently to tempt him out of a government job he thoroughly enjoyed - assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs - back into academic life to look into the reasons for it. Ensconced at Harvard - his academic base since beginning a doctoral thesis in 1960 on "Pan-Africanism and Unification in East Africa" - he initiated a cross-disciplinary research project that has borne its first significant fruit in Why People Don't Trust Government. The book, and its subject matter, are being taken seriously in the highest political circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Nye was among a group of American experts led by Hillary Clinton who recently came to Britain for a seminar on the book attended by, among others, Tony Blair, who left clutching a copy.

Nye could hardly be better qualified for his subject. As well as studying government, he has practised it, serving for two years (1977-79) as undersecretary of state for security assistance, science and technology during the Carter administration and then in two posts under Clinton, first (1993-94) as chairman of the National Intelligence Council and then (1994-95) at defence.

He says: "The disadvantage of our system compared with the British is that we lack the stability and continuity provided by a permanent civil service. The great virtue is a constant injection of new ideas from the outside, for better or worse."

The Kennedy School is an apt location for his inquiries. "We aim to be to government and public service what the Harvard Business School is to business," says Nye. "We try to bring together world-class academics across a range of disciplines and practitioners." The 300-strong faculty includes two former members of Congress, an ex-senator and the former cabinet minister Baroness Williams, while former students include the current presidents of Mexico and Costa Rica.

And if the name, Nye's public service career and a Massachusetts location suggest a Democrat bent, Nye points to strenuous efforts to ensure a balance: "My deputy, Sheila Burke, was previously Dole's chief of staff and we do our best to cover all bases and ensure that there is a liberal-conservative dialogue." He notes that some of the most interesting and thoughtful contributions to the debate on how government can adjust to a changing world have come from the ferociously partisan but intellectually curious Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich.

Nye's decision to move back into academic life was prompted by the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. "I was preoccupied that people could become so anti-government that they were capable of an act like that. I enjoyed my government job, in charge of the Pentagon's relations with other countries and I travelled all over the world - 53 countries in 52 weeks, often in the company of the secretary of defence or the president. But a job like that doesn't allow you enough time to think about the longer-term issues, and when I got the offer from Harvard I decided that was what I wanted to do."

Polling figures point to a spectacular loss of faith in the virtues of government. In 1964 threequarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing. Today that figure is closer to one quarter. "You see the same trends in countries like Japan and France whose traditions are not in the slightest Jeffersonian," says Nye.

The exceptions are Denmark and the Netherlands. This is not a "bicycling monarchy" phenomenon - Nye notes that Sweden's pattern of declining trust in government almost exactly replicates the US. On the Netherlands, he offers the suggestion of his friend Ruud Lubbers, the former prime minister of the Netherlands who teaches on Kennedy School short courses every spring. "He thinks it has something to do with the associative nature of Dutch society and politics. There is a long tradition of compromise, which ensures that no views are excluded."

Why People Don't Trust Government, while chronicling trends and noting phenomena with international resonance, concentrates largely on the American experience. But international comparisons allow Nye to dismiss Vietnam and Watergate, often blamed for American disillusionment, as the key factors in the decline of public trust in government. If they were, he points out, the American pattern of declining trust would be different from those of other countries which were not embroiled in a debilitating war shortly followed by the mother of all political scandals. "Vietnam and Watergate did not precipitate the decline, which would have happened without them. But they did speed it up," he suggests.

There are longer-term explanations. One is the apparent singularity of the 1950s, the decade whose relative peace and prosperity - in sharp contrast to what had gone immediately before - has ever since coloured conceptions of normality on both sides of the Atlantic. "I think the 1950s probably were exceptional. Confidence in government was extremely high because of the (end of the second world) war, and that possibly led politicians to make exaggerated claims and inflate expectations. There was a faith in government's ability to solve problems which underestimated the complexity and intractability of those problems."

There has also been economic change in recent years creating a deep sense of insecurity among middle-class Americans conditioned by the remorseless progress of the previous century to assume that unemployment and financial setbacks were a thing of the past. Patterns of authority have changed too. "The pattern of declining respect for once accepted authority is seen across the western world. That, and the economic trends, are long-term and I see no likelihood of their being reversed."

In recent years these changes have been accompanied by more negative political campaigning - everyone proclaims their distaste for "attack ads",but not to use them is to risk defeat - and more aggressively cynical media coverage, particularly in the talk radio shows. "All of this has reinforced a distaste for and distrust of politicians and government. All the evidence is that government and politicians are at least as honest as they were in the past, but that isn't the impression people are getting."

Why People Don't Trust Government, edited by Joseph S. Nye Jr, Philip D. Zelikow and David C. King, Harvard University Press, Pounds 12.50.

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