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Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson: A national deficit of trust

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Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.In <a href='http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/19/AR2010041903937.html'>today's column</a> Gene writes: Trust might as well be a four-letter word. American public opinion seems to have become an unguided Weapon of Mass Suspicion, and it's not hard to understand why. But those who would exploit distrust, dissatisfaction and anger for political gain had better worry about collateral damage.

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Eugene Robinson: Hello, everybody, and welcome. As usual, anything and everything is on the table for discussion. Today's column was about distrust -- especially of government, but of other big institutions, too -- as measured in the new Pew Research Center poll. But before we get started, I do want to note the passing of Dorothy Height, one of the giants of the civil rights movement. She was the only woman sitting with the other leaders on the podium at the March on Washington in 1963 -- but they wouldn't let her speak. Her lifelong struggle was for equal rights not just for African Americans, but for women as well. And it was a long life: She died at 98. An amazing woman. Let's get started.

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Deficit of trust: The deficit of trust should be more accurately described as a national epidemic of fear. We don't have a government that promotes and protects our values or aspirations anymore. We don't have an economy that works for our advancement anymore. We have a population that is aging and being overwhelmed by "diversity", aliens swarming in and overpopulating our nation, bringing the poverty and desperation they sought to escape with them. Isn't President Obama failing to step up to the challenges that are disintegrating our nation? You can ridicule the Tea Party movement and the religious right conservatives, but don't they sort of have a point in bemoaning the death of the American spirit and sense of justice under the onslaught of greed and corruption from our government and corporate fascist overlords?

Eugene Robinson: Where to begin? Yes, we're aging. As an example of "diversity," I don't find it overwhelming at all -- and I worry about people who do. Study after study has shown that immigration, which is as American as apple pie, boosts the economy. The "American spirit" comes in many colors.

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Why Not?: Just like you and your ilk despise conserevatives, I despise liberals and want the worst for them. Why would we not distrust each other?

Eugene Robinson: I can't speak for my ilk -- who knew I had ilk? -- but I don't despise conservatives. I disagree with them on most things. The only bad thing I wish for them is losing elections.

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Beck, Limbauhgh, etc.: Yesterday, we had an armed protest at an area park in Northern Virgina. The word "revolution" seems to creep into conversation quite often with these nuts. Do you think the rhetoric on T.V. and Radio is partly responsible, or are Beck and Limbaugh correct to say that they bear absolutely no responsibility for what they say?

Eugene Robinson: I think the overheated rhetoric about "revolution" and "taking our country back" (from whom?) raises the temperature. Beck and Limbaugh are entertainers, and frankly I don't expect civic responsibility from them. I do expect responsibility from elected officials, and sometimes I don't see it.

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ECON 101: Concerning your reporting that surveys indicate regular folks want government to have a smaller role in the economy. I think that's for two reasons. One reason appeals to conservatives, the other to liberals. First, Congress has lost all credibility and respect with the public in failing to even discuss the elephant in the room: the long term deficit (Social Security and Medicare). The second reason is that the public as a whole doesn't appreciate that elected government is the steward of public goods. The benefit of a good liberal arts education is that you're taught about paradoxes like the tragedy of the commons. So, expecting government to wither away is as naive as expecting it solve all the problems. The founding fathers understood this. Why can't most citizens?

Eugene Robinson: Last weekend, there was a "Tea Party" protest in Florida whose aim was to pressure President Obama to spend more money on the space program. The Tea Party is for smaller government and less spending, "except in my neighborhood." No government-run health care, but keep your hands off my Medicare. And this is a philosophy?

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Trust and polls: I heard those poll results on NPR, which reported that a majority of Americans feel the government is too activist. The poll also found that a majority of Americans feel the government doesn't do enough for them. So the government does too much, but the government doesn't do enough?

Eugene Robinson: Exactly.

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DC: I remember so well going to see "If this Hat Could Talk" with my dad. When we came out, he said that he had trouble believing that Ms. Height has played such a prominent role in the progress made by the men of the movement. I told him that was a significant part of the point. Anyway, I loved watching that woman talk, and greatly admire a woman having truly lived a life so fully. I hope she runs into my dad and gives him a lesson in woman's history. Just a comment, I guess.

Eugene Robinson: Thank you so much. For those who don't know, Dorothy Height's trademark was her colorful hats. I never saw her without one. She was a living link to the giants of civil rights and women's rights, and we'll miss her.

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Reaping the Whirlwind: The Republicans and their right wing media partners have done a masterful job of dominating the political debate in this country and they've been doing it for years. When they're in power they accuse everyone that disagrees with them of treason and when they lose elections they claim the winning parties are tyrannical socialists or worse. No wonder people are suspicious of government. When Republicans are in power, they have no interest in governing (they don't actually think they should) and therefore do a lousy job of it. When they are out of power, they do everything they can to block the democrats from doing anything. The net result is absolutely nothing gets done in Washington -- ever. Given this reality I'm shocked that 22% actually trust government a great deal. The Republican party may reap the whirlwind of their tea party shock troops. It appears as though they might have a tiger by the tail and can't let go. If McCain and Bennett go down in primaries like Crist did, the GOP could be in big trouble -- But only if the Democrats field better candidates than they have recently.

Eugene Robinson: I was amused toward the end of the health care saga when Republicans complained that nobody would listen to their long list of ideas for reform. During the years when the Republicans held the White House or were in control of one or both houses of Congress, when did they ever make a move toward health care reform?And I agree that the Tea Party phenomenon is not a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. As the GOP, I suspect, will soon discover.

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What you miss (again): Jefferson -- "An elective despotism is not what we fought for."Having a lineal ancestor as a lieutenant in the Pa. militia (who spent some time at Valley Forge), I couldn't agree more.Now with the new "stuff" on FDA regulation of salt reported today, more people will have to wonder where this megalomaniacal administration will stop. And you're a willing handmaiden.

Eugene Robinson: A first! I've been called many things, but never a "handmaiden." Maybe you think the FDA should have no interest in the nation's health, but I disagree. You get 77 percent of the sodium you ingest daily from processed food. When the Founders wrote the constitution, there WAS no processed food. I suspect that if people were selling food that was making people sick, they would have objected. I hope the FDA does act -- if we could reduce the epidemic of high blood pressure in this country. But you and everyone else will be free to dump as much salt into your food as you want.

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Black Sexism: You mentioned that this giant of the Civil Rights movement, Dorothy Height, was not allowed to speak. Seems to me I read somewhere that, like most men of the time, King and his fellow leaders were, well, like most men of their time. Was there a reason she was not asked/allowed to speak at that seminal event?

Eugene Robinson: Sexism was truly colorblind. But leaders of the civil rights movement, like others in our society, eventually had their consciousness raised. (I won't even get into the fact that Bayard Rustin, the organizational genius behind the March on Washington, was openly gay -- and thus was kept out of the spotlight.)

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Two different worlds: I feel sorry for the Tea Partiers who believe so much that simply isn't true. There was a lot of hate and mistrust for Bush, but I feel like that was largely based on things that we know were real -- warrantless wiretaps, torture of prisoners, overblown claims of WMDs in Iraq. In contrast hatred of Obama is based on nonsense -- death panels, socialism, banning guns. The last is especially galling, as the NRA made identical, and equally false, claims for Carter and Clinton.

Eugene Robinson: Indeed, the critics are making a lot of stuff up. The gun thing is really stupid because President Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, has said that he believes the Second Amendment confers an individual right to keep and bear arms. He's closer to the Tea Party position than he is to most progressives on this question.

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Media's role in distrust of government: Doesn't the mainstream media also shoulder a significant responsibility because they shifted from a watchdog mindset where their main function was to tell the public what people were doing, to one more like "Gossip Girl" where their main function is just to tell the public what both sides are saying. If we don't trust our institutions isn't some if it because we don't really know who is doing what?

Eugene Robinson: I agree that our responsibility should be to tell people the truth as nearly as we can ascertain it. We fall back too easily on the "let's hear from both sides" formula. That's false "balance." Instead, we should try our best to separate fact from fiction.

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Distrust, information age: In the NYT today, David Brooks says he wondered whether the Internet was aiding and abetting distrust (or democracy) but that a U of Chicago study disputes that theory. Nonetheless, I wonder, in an age where we know so much--maybe too much--about our legislators, whether that incessent stream of information, quotes, foibles, tantrums, etc., undermines our ability to trust someone and, therefore, the institution they work for. I remember reading an editorial arguing for more dignified behavior in politicians and beyond. Dignity is easier to maintain when your every move isn't being broadcast on YouTube.

Eugene Robinson: What's the old saying, "No man is a hero to his valet"? A sense of dignity is indeed easier to maintain with distance. But I think the genie of YouTube and cell phone cameras will never be put back into its bottle, and we'll have to learn to live with it.

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Distrust: Hello Gene, the recent poll on distrust of government is starting to make sense to me. One of the few things left and right may be able to agree on is that the government is almost completely captive of the interests they are supposed to be regulating. Righties profess to hate government in general. Lefties see the bureaucracy as completely captive of the big business interests it is supposed to be regulating.

Eugene Robinson: I agree, but with two caveats. First, one person's "special interest" is another person's bread and butter. And second, I really don't see a definitive solution. Everyone says "take the money out of politics," but I don't see a way to do that short of public financing of campaigns, and I'm not sure that would be constitutional. We could simplify the tax code, stripping out the special-interest loopholes, but that will be difficult to do. Maybe not impossible, though.

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Out of Context Quotes: I imagine you can find five or six words from Jefferson to justify almost any point of view. It seems truly odd to me that regulating the salt in processed food would be equated with despotism and megalomania, however. Today, we live in a country with fewer safety standards, inspections, guidelines and actions taken than we had decades ago -- there are time bombs planted all over the place, whether it's vulnerability of infrastructure to terrorists (home grown or otherwise), food safety, effectiveness of antibiotics, etc. We've walked backwards. Understanding Jefferson, he may or may not have supported the idea of mandates from the government, but he would have abhorred the embrace of ignorance and rejection of science that we see today from the right wing.

Eugene Robinson: I agree. I've gotten quite a few questions today about this salt thing. I, too, am at a loss to understand why one of the most basic things that anyone would want government to do -- make sure that our food is safe and healthy -- is suddenly so controversial. Wow.

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An imagined past?: While I agree that distilling a clear political/ideological philosophy from the Tea Party movement is difficult, I wonder if in a very real sense an attempt can be made to link many of the reactionary ideas in that movement to an idealization of an American past that was never really there. Or hasn't been there for a very long time anyway. I'm struck by Robert Wiebe's notion of the island community and its dissolution at the turn of the twentieth century. In essence, rapid changes brought about by urbanization and industrialization created an environment that left the idea of autonomous, often times rural communities, as untenable. Your point about the need for FDA oversight was a good one. Changes that happened a long time ago now left us all with a need for more than just local regulations and unfettered individualism. I would hope that the recent financial crisis has made this abundantly clear. Are we just rehashing battles fought over 100 years ago? When exactly did the U.S. experience this past that some are fighting so hard to preserve?

Eugene Robinson: My view is that people are harking back to a golden age that never was. Our economy was complicated, interconnected and global even in the days when Jefferson was president.

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NASA is appropriate Gov't spending: Eugene... your straw-man argument that increasing NASA spending is against the philosophy of the Tea Party movement is on really shaky legs. Space exploration is a PERFECT role for government spending. It also, in this day and age, has interest in our national defense. What doesn't have any place in government is the ever increasing cost and expansion of social programs. That is completely unsustainable, where-as Space and defense spending is far more controllable. We are making promises that we, as a country cannot financially support.

Eugene Robinson: Okay, what do you want to cut? No more Social Security? No more Medicare? Good luck selling those ideas, even at a Tea Party rally. You seem not to want to cut defense spending, either. So what's left? You've just preserved the vast majority of government spending and limited your cuts to the margins. But, hey, let's go visit Jupiter.

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The FDA salt is but the first step: You don't understand. If the FDA can regulate salt in some fashion, what's to stop it from regulating us back to near beer. Alcoholism is a problem, blah, blah, blah. Why can you never see that an expansion of government's power can be misplaced? The quote from Jefferson is about government power, not processed food. Didn't you know that?

Eugene Robinson: So you don't want the FDA to regulate ANYTHING? Look, don't worry. Remember the president's famous "beer summit?" Our brewskis are safe!

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Dorothy Height: We are honored to live in the same age with so many giants of civil rights. God bless her and her family.

Eugene Robinson: Amen.And thanks, everybody, for participating. My time is up for today. See you next week!


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