In the US there is an ever-present mistrust of the government, this is a long standing cultural element that dates back to the founding of the country.The Founding Fathers created a government with three branches, checks, balances and the Bill of Rights because they mistrusted the power of government. This line of thought has perpetuated over the centuries and effects all Americans to some extent or another. Despite the mistrust for the government most people see the government as a protector; we expect the government to deal with crime, foreign threats, domestic threats and general public safety.
But trust and mistrust are not static; in many ways trust is a comparative process. When faced with conflicting information we must decide which source we trust. When faced with a choice between products we decide how much we trust each company when choosing which to purchase. Government is no different. If we hear a report from North Korea and one from the US government that contradict each other most of us would choose to believe the report from the US government because we trust them more than North Korea. Evaluations of trust and mistrust depend on the options available; each option is compared to the others and that influences the level of trust and mistrust we have for each option.
Furthermore depending on the circumstances we may trust a specific person or institution more or less. Normally we may not trust strangers but in a time of need we may trust strangers more easily. When we are desperate or emotional or insecure we may trust a solution more than if we were comfortably situated. When we are safe, secure and calm then we have the convenience of being more distrustful. The situation we find ourselves in can significantly impact our level of trust or mistrust for different people and institutions.
We may overall mistrust the government and believe that it will abuse any power that it is granted. But the generalized mistrust Americans have for government may shift toward greater trust or distrust based on the circumstance. We may trust the government with one task but not another. Or we may trust the government more when we need the government than when we don’t. Unfortunately the government understand this and uses it to manipulate the populace at times.
The September 11th attacks created a huge amount of fear and the government has exploited that fear. We are constantly reminded by politicians about the terrorist threats that the US faces on a daily basis. We are told about dangers of Al Qaeda and their affiliates. We are so terrified that we are waging a war on terrorism itself.
When we are afraid of an outside foreign threat then we want to seek protection and security. The US government looks a lot more trustworthy than a terrorist organization bent on causing harm to the US. Thus while we feel fearful and insecure we are more apt to trust the government when it says that expanded governmental powers are necessary to protect the people. There is less overall mistrust of the government and less disagreement with the proposed actions because security is a very fundamental human need so it superseded our mistrust of government.
The government exploits that opportunity to expand power and influence. Once the fear subsides many start feeling buyers remorse as we realize exactly what was given up for security. At that point the government tries to ratchet up the fear in order to quell concerns over the government’s power grab. Political rhetoric becomes more extreme, reminders of terrorist threats become more common and the government portrays itself as our benevolent protector. Just look at the current spying scandals. The political rhetoric on both right and left is highly focused on the terrorist threats that have or will be foiled with the NSA surveillance programs. They are trying to create fear of terrorists in order to build trust in the US government.
But the fear can’t last forever, eventually it will subside. Then we will start questioning the government again and our mistrust of the government will grow. Those in power just hope that the fear last long enough for us to forget about the powers we granted the government while we were afraid.