Romney’s tax returns, Obama’s birth certificate and the end of trust

Brian Taylor for The Washington Post

The more Americans mistrust politics, the news media, business and virtually every other major institution, the more demand there is for the documents, the proof, the evidence we need to get to the “real truth.”

But we never quite get there.

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Does anyone believe that questions about Mitt Romney’s wealth and his ability to connect with middle-class voters would somehow be settled if he released a raft of tax returns in addition to his 2010 return, which showed taxes of $3 million paid on income of $21.6 million? Conversely, would those disclosures really damage the Republican presidential candidate more than the video of his car elevator, stories about his wife’s horses, or his awkward remarks about firing people and making $10,000 bets?

For many months, President Obama resisted releasing his birth certificate to prove that he was born in this country. When he finally did so last year, many Americans who had been skeptical of the president’s origins had their doubts allayed: In a Washington Post poll, the portion of Americans who said they believed that Obama was born in Hawaii jumped to 70 percent, compared with 48 percent in 2010. Among Republicans, the share who said Obama was not born in the United States fell from 31 percent in 2010 to 14 percent.

But doubts about Obama’s “American-ness” persist. Just this past week, former New Hampshire governorJohn Sununu, speaking on behalf of Romney on a campaign conference call, said, “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.” Sununu later apologized, but his comment was hardly a slip of the tongue: The same day, on Fox News, he said that Obama “has no idea how the American system functions, and we shouldn’t be surprised about that because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia.”

These are not random campaign controversies. Almost without exception, squabbles over a candidate’s resistance to release personal documents reflect some essential doubt that voters have about the politician. The clamor for George W. Bush’s draft records grew out of questions about whether he was a lazy son of a privileged politician or had the smarts and drive to serve in high office. The long search for documents detailing the Clintons’ real estate doings in Arkansas was part of an effort by voters to figure out whether Bill Clinton’s bad-boy behavior was limited to his personal urges or had leached into his political dealings.

When Obama’s birth certificate, passport records and medical files remain an issue for some voters through his presidency, it means that some people are still trying to resolve doubts about his exotic background — his role as a racial pioneer and his biography as the child of a father from Africa and a mother who took her son across the globe.

And when Romney’s tax records become a political albatross, that dispute is not so much about the merits of running a transparent campaign as about the discomfort some voters feel toward the candidate’s wealth and whether he understands the lives of those who have less.

Document battles — whether trumped-up election-season kerfuffles or genuine quests for important information — have been a mainstay of every national campaign since 2000. That should tell us that the hunger for proof stems from something much deeper than our search for the immaculate candidate. It’s part of our larger national neurosis, the corrosion of the sense that whatever our political leanings, we all share a common fact base. The fraying of that consensus has led increasingly to an entrenched popular skepticism, a stance toward politicians and institutions of all kinds that’s not just an arched-eyebrow “Show me,” but an obstinate and insistent “I don’t believe you.”

Not only do Americans increasingly segregate themselves in information silos arranged by political ideology, but even when we’re ensconced in the comforting echo chamber of Fox/Drudge World or MSNBC/NPR Land, we’re cynical about the very nature of facts.

Since 1996, Alex Jones, a hard-core libertarian with a penchant for conspiracy theories, has hosted a talk show that now runs on more than 100 radio stations and on XM satellite radio. His listeners have long shared his mistrust of the government, but in recent years, Jones has found, it’s become increasingly difficult to convince many people of, well, anything.

“People don’t trust government, major corporations or even their neighbors anymore,” he says from his studios in Austin. “It’s a complete loss of trust, so people seek bona fide proof of any claim. The Internet has opened up huge new worlds of communication, from the absurd to good, thought-provoking information, but people just don’t know what to believe, so they don’t believe a word of it. They don’t believe a word Mitt Romney says, and they don’t believe what Barack Obama says.”

Even when proof is forthcoming, it’s hard to get people to change their minds. Jones himself clamored for many months for Obama to release his birth certificate; when the White House finally did, he says, “I knew in two hours it was a fake. I blew them up, and it was clearly made with a font designed to look like a typewriter.”

Jones has also been on the receiving end of such resolute disbelief. When some listeners expressed doubts about his biography, he was startled to learn that some of them traveled to suburban Dallas to look up his high school yearbooks. “People just don’t believe anything,” he says.

You needn’t agree with Jones’s conclusion that we now live in “an Alice in Wonderland, Max Headroom, Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner society” to recognize that Americans have become chronic disbelievers of politicians, retailers, corporate bosses and even their friends.

“The Post Modern Consumer just doesn’t believe us anymore. They have endured too many empty promises, too many exaggerated benefits, and too many artful disclaimers.” So concludes Flint McGlaughlin, a Florida-based marketing researcher whose firm, Meclabs, has conducted thousands of experiments aimed at figuring out what kinds of messages can still get through to skeptical Americans.

“The predisposition now is to doubt every claim,” he says. That’s true whether you’re selling soap or hope.

But politicians have it worse than most businesses because the electoral process is almost perfectly designed to undermine trust. Campaigns devote a good deal of energy to rooting out and exposing an opponent’s inconsistencies — gotchas that are magnified by the news media’s passion for conflict and controversy. Political ads on TV consist largely of claims that the other person lied, flip-flopped or pretended to be something other than what he or she really is.

The sound bites, instant response ads and focus-grouped phraseology of the modern political campaign “can create the perception of inconsistency very quickly,” McGlaughlin says. Building trust, however, requires time and a chance to make mistakes and demonstrate resiliency — exactly what a campaign doesn’t afford a candidate. Bill Clinton’s relatively quick return to popularity and respect after the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his impeachment would be almost unimaginable in today’s environment, where reputations are shattered with the speed of a single Internet meme.

No wonder we demand documentary proof from our leaders. Character alone no longer suffices. McGlaughlin now advises his corporate clients to present consumers with quantifiable claims rather than mere expressions of quality. But such advice comes with a dire warning: McGlaughlin, a theologian before he went into marketing, quotes the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who said that the more we demand evidence, the more we create doubt.

Even official records don’t put doubts entirely to rest. “There comes a point when you just have to move on with the credibility you have built up over your career,” McGlaughlin says. “You’re not going to solve problems by producing evidence.”

But Obama did slice the number of disbelievers in half by releasing his birth certificate. And in the public realm, there is merit in disclosure for its own sake, says Ellen Miller, a co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation, which works for more transparency in government and politics.

“In the 21st century, access to information and documents is expected,” she says. “People expect to be able to inspect documents themselves, online and immediately.”

Voters are more skeptical than ever, but that demands greater accountability, Miller argues. “Democracy is messy,” she says. “But disclosure opens society to a more robust debate.”

Debate is of course essential to an effective democracy, but so is trust, the foundation of any compromise or consensus. Putting documents out there is always a good move; Romney’s father, George, released 12 years of his tax returns when he ran for president nearly half a century ago, and the past 20 years have brought a sort of tax-return-disclosure arms race in which candidates have released five, 10, 20 or more years’ worth of records.

But without a basic compact of belief between the governed and the government, even towering stacks of paper won’t clear the air. Right now, that compact just isn’t there.

marcfisher@washpost.com

Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post.

Read more from Outlook:

A few guesses at what’s in Mitt Romney’s tax returns

Could an honest politician become president?

The Fact Checker’s challenge to Romney and Obama

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