Last week, the anchor on a cable news program announced that fully 63% of Americans don’t trust the government. The alarm in her voice suggested this is a bad thing. I don’t see it that way.
When I started teaching high school in the mid-eighties, I was required to teach Animal Farm. For me, that seemingly simple, 125-page novel by George Orwell shed more light on the workings of government and politics than anything I’ve ever read. Because I was teaching the book, I couldn’t just give it a quick read. I had to delve into it, study it, understand its underlying messages and nuances. The more I “delved,” the more I came to recognize the genius behind the book’s simplicity. And like any good work of literature, it raises a lot of questions. Questions such as: What happens when people aren’t educated to think for themselves? When they stray from their founding principles? When they become dependent on government to provide for their every need? When they look to government to solve their every problem? When, little by little, they give up freedoms for comfort or safety? And a biggie—a question I’m sure Orwell, an atheist, never intended to raise—what happens when people trust government as the ultimate Authority and Power?
In the mid-nineties, after the collapse of many communist governments, there was a call from some educators to remove Animal Farm from the required reading list in high schools. They considered it no longer relevant. But people who think this book is about the rise of communism have missed the point almost as completely as one of my former students who wrote on a test: The theme of Animal Farm is to show that animals have feelings, too. Notice I said almost. (My reaction to that answer was not one of the finer moments of my teaching career.)
The overriding theme of Animal Farm—power corrupts. When ANY government gains too much power, it wanders far afoul of its purpose, and it becomes abusive of that power. In almost step-by-step fashion, Orwell—using the rise of the Communist regime in the former Soviet Union as an example—shows how that happens.
Through his animal characters, he cleverly, humorously, tragically shows factors which contribute to the corruption of government and the downfall of ideas. The reasons are many, and they overlap and intertwine, but basically corruption of government occurs when people no longer hold their elected leaders accountable. They trust them too much. They question them too little.
Sixty-three percent of Americans don’t trust the government? I’d say that’s a good thing. The day I hear we trust the government one hundred or even ninety percent? That’s when I’ll start worrying.
PS Are you a political junkie? Here are some shows that give “interesting” insights into the workings of government. I’m not so totally jaded I think all politics work this way, but these shows definitely underscore the need to keep a watchful eye out. And if it's been a while since you've read Animal Farm, you might re-visit it.
Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister-- BBC sitcom from the 1980s; a hilarious, more lighthearted approach to exposing the shortcomings of government
There's truth in what you say here. I wonder, though, about WHY 63% of Americans don't trust the government--and what those reasons tell us about the state of our polity.
Here's what I mean. At its best, democratic government is a useful tool for collective action--an imperfect one, but nevertheless a tool that the people can use to organize and carry out collective action to pursue important social goods that could not be produced by individuals or smaller private groups acting on their own.
But this useful role of government can happen only when people in society take ownership of their government: they see themselves as a part of the government; they are civically engaged citizens working together and trying to make the best of an imperfect system that is nevertheless theirs, to produce goods through collective action that couldn't be realized by a bunch of individuals focused on their narrow interests.
When people stop seeing the government as theirs and stop being participants in the system--when they cease to act as citizens--they become alienated from the systems of government. Government becomes a foreign power to be feared, rather than a collective tool they have a stake in. And there is a feedback loop here: As citizens become alienated, the government BECOMES more and more an alien power, thereby magnifying the alienation.
Put simply, lack of trust can be, at its best, a motive for people to become engaged in their government: "Without my involvement, and the involvement of my fellow citizens, this tool of ours can't be relied upon." But lack of trust can, at its worst, be little but a symptom of disengagement and alienation.
Much hinges on whether distrust is born out of fear and fueled by fear-mongering. I worry that our democratic system has become so polarized, the political process so defined by vilification of the opposing party, that half the populace sees the prevailing party as an enemy to be feared and so stops seeing the government as theirs for that reason. Civic engagement and collective ownership of this thing we call government is conditioned upon "my" party being in power.
If the alienation between government and citizens becomes sufficiently profound, we are in the situation that prevails at the start of Animal Farm, where the only solution seems to be revolution. And one important lesson of that book is that revolution rarely solves the problem it is reacting to. Instead it tends to recreate, with a new hierarchy, the very conditions that gave rise to it.
I don't think America is on the brink of a violent revolution, but I do worry that a bit too much of our current distrust of government is a symptom of disengagement, a sign of our loss of civic spirit, a loss of faith in our capacity for collective action for the social good. And I worry that our election seasons are being defined a bit too much by the spirit of revolution, so that those who don't identify with the party in power are seeing the election as their chance to win back power for "their" people. We don't see the government as "ours" until "our" party overthrows "theirs" by winning the election.
Let the distrust be a reason not to remain disengaged, a reason to take responsibility for government's course by being active participants in civic life, and the distrust is a good thing. But if the distrust be nothing BUT fear of a government that is seen as an alien power, then what it inspires is the belligerent urge towards revolution. And Animal Farm is an important cautionary tale about where that urge, where indulged, leads.
Thank you, Eric, for taking the time to respond so thoroughly. Until now, I've never received a comment that was longer than my post! :-)And I agree with the point you raise. In fact, in my list of questions, one that I edited out was "What happens when people feel powerless or apathetic? When they look upon government as "They" the people rather than "We" the people? For the sake of brevity, I "over-simplified." Another danger of which Orwell warns us.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Dee Dee (and Eric!) for giving us something to think about! I never had to read Animal Farm - may have to check it out!ReplyDelete
Interesting conversation happening here at your blog Dee Dee. I was NOT a fan of Animal Farm and wonder if I might feel differently reading it as an adult. The Marottas are a house divided, politically speaking, and we have some heated discussions here. We are actively looking for some politically neutral information sources so we can feel more confident in the facts of various issues. Any suggestions?ReplyDelete