The Elmer’s Treatment
The U.S. government shares vast amounts of information with the public, a touch of glue to help hold a skeptical polity together.
The good news is that spring has sprung, and so has Americans’ approval of Congress. The rollout of coronavirus vaccines and the arrival of government relief checks have helped bolster the public’s esteem to its highest level since 2009. From January to March the approval rating rose, Gallup reports, from 25 percent to 36 percent.
So, what’s the bad news? It’s that the rise in public approval looks impressive only because the baseline was so abysmal. Less than half the public says it trusts the federal government to solve domestic or international problems. Only a third or so has an overall positive view of government, which is ranked behind every private sector of the economy, including lawyers and the dread media.
This distemper seems to have its roots in the public lack of confidence in government. Eight in ten Americans do not trust the federal government to do the right thing. Expressions of citizens’ distrust have become particularly poignant during the coronavirus pandemic. Significant percentages of the public doubt the federal government’s recommendations on masks and are wary of being vaccinated. The federal government has turned to celebrities like Morgan Freeman and Dolly Parton to sway skeptical citizens.
Some of this distrust is due to intense partisanship, of course. But beyond the partisan rancor lies a more profound belief that leaders have conspired to hide awful truths from us. Five years ago, a survey found that a fifth of Americans thought the federal government had plotted the September 11 attacks; a third believed that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was involved in a pedophilia ring.
Conspiracy theories about U.S. public officials are as old as the Republic. Tales of Masonic cabals pulling the levers of power circulated at the Founding and live on today. The mid-1960s, marked by the Kennedy assassination and the murky subsequent Warren Commission investigation, stoked suspicion that secret hands were manipulating our democracy. Public trust in government plunged from 77 percent in 1964 to 27 percent in 1979.
True, some of the suspicion must be attributed to febrile imaginations. But our leaders have too often been caught lying about important matters. President Lyndon Johnson’s administration deceived Americans about purported attacks on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin and thereby plunged the nation into the Vietnam War. The media, which had been credulous toward government, published serial exposés about the breadth of government deception.
The eventual counteraction was President Trump’s attempt to discredit the news by labeling it “fake,” just as he tried to discredit the government he oversaw by calling it the “deep state.”
But if it makes no sense for a democracy to trust government blindly, it is equally perverse to slip, as we have done, into assuming that government generally lies to us. One thing we would do well to remember is that there is a wealth of information that our government shares with the public on its activities. Such information can play a restorative role in the bonds between citizen and government.
Plenty of Ink Spilled
Every day, the federal government delivers us a torrent of high-quality information. We trust it without a second thought; indeed, we would have trouble getting through the day without it. This delivery has taken place since the government was created. It is an essential ingredient in binding Americans to one another and their polity.
Itemizing this information is as impossible as naming individual raindrops in a tropical storm. But we can categorize it:
For starters, think about government statistics. At a time when the Departments of State and War together had only a dozen or so people on staff, Alexander Hamilton, as the country’s first secretary of the treasury, employed more than five hundred, many of them tasked with gathering data of practical value to not just government but commercial interests. Today, this kind of record-keeping, on a much grander scale, tells us what we are doing and where we seem to be headed. For example, every ten years the Department of Commerce carries out a national census. Each year the FBI provides a statistical summary of hate crimes. Every month the Department of Labor reports on levels of unemployment. Every day the National Weather Service tracks temperatures and issues weather forecasts to the country’s cities and hamlets.
Next, think about accountability, an essential feature of democracy. The Founders did not fully embrace this principle at the start: When he was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry (who later lent his name to “gerrymandering”) was distressed that members of the House of Representatives would be allowed to “conceal their journals” from the public. When he became a Representative, he called for a “full and impartial publication of the debates of the House.” Finally, in 1873, Congress inaugurated the Congressional Record for its proceedings and debates, and it is now taken for granted as much as the publication of congressional hearings.
The Executive Branch, like Congress, was slow to embrace the idea of accounting for its activities. Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information, remembered today for its enthusiastic propagandizing during World War I, actually began a great service by publishing a daily Official Bulletin, which listed government proclamations, rules, and purchases of items as mundane as boots for soldiers. The bulletin was killed at the end of the war; but in 1936, the Roosevelt Administration created a successor, the Federal Register, which published rules and regulations, executive orders, and presidential proclamations, all without editorial comment. In due course, other topics covered by the old Official Bulletin, like proposed procurement, contracts, and sales of government property, found their way into the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents and the Commerce Business Daily; and new publications have been steadily added, ranging from the annual Financial Report of the United States Government to Supreme Court arguments and opinions.
A third category of information, made up of government reports, draws from studies by the experts who became a significant feature of the Executive Branch around the turn of the 19th century. In 1895 the secretary of agriculture justified their presence by asserting that “new ideas” were “of more permanent value than old seeds.” Government experts conduct research on optimum diets (at the Department of Agriculture), mitigation techniques for environmental accidents (at the Environmental Protection Agency), and the efficacy of various automobile seat belts (at the National Highway Transportation Administration). To help ensure the public is aware of this work, the government publishes both yearbooks summarizing the studies and indexes of the titles of government publications.
Congress now does this type of work as well. Citizens can find copies of legislation and explanatory digests on congress.gov, where they can also track the status of bills and nominations to government positions. More, they can read reports by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service that explain how Congress, executive agencies, and government programs operate.
Much of this work by experts leads to findings of urgent concern to the public that appear as government alerts. For instance, while the National Weather Service issues daily reports on sunshine and rain, it also monitors crises like hurricanes and issues the appropriate emergency warnings—alongside food recalls and FBI “most wanted” lists.
Finally, there are government guides, issued on the assumption that people need help to avail themselves of … government. They can be as straightforward as a web page telling you where to find your local Social Security office or as complex as a Department of Health and Human Services’ “explainer” on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s Privacy Rule. During the coronavirus pandemic, federal agencies have delivered relentless communications trying to explain the perils of the virus, the ways those dangers can be mitigated, and the places where Americans can get tested and vaccinated.
Just the Facts, Please
Where there are information tools, there are opportunities for propaganda. This propaganda frequently appears when an administration uses agency communications channels to advocate for a policy or ballyhoo a President’s achievements. For example, the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency proposed an anti-water pollution regulation—and then used social media to fabricate public support for it. Just before the 2020 presidential election, the Trump Administration used the U.S. Treasury website to boast about the growth of the economy.
Needless to say, these activities blur the line between agencies’ avowedly political leadership and their supposedly apolitical civil servants, whose job it is to administer the law.
The Biden Administration and, to a degree, Congress can bolster Americans’ trust in government by not telling whoppers. But that is not enough.
Elected officials can proactively cultivate trust by explaining the many ways in which the government informs the public every day and talking about the government’s duty to be truthful. The Biden Administration and members of Congress can even host hackathons that invite techies to take government data streams and make them more useful to the public in the form of apps or other free software.
President Biden, in particular, as government’s most visible actor, can model integrity in his communications with the public. In his press conferences, he can play it straight with journalists; and he can require his spokespersons to do the same. His administration is off to a good start; but the President himself should go before the public regularly to build public trust.
Talk is important, but so is action that bolsters public confidence in government. The President can revise current policies governing classified information. Far too much of it is locked down at the moment it is created; government then has to work through dated and laborious processes to release it to the public. These processes should be changed to flip the presumption to non-classification, and Congress’ funding for declassification needs to be increased. It is absurd that German secret ink techniques were kept classified for nearly a century.
The administration and Congress should direct agencies to move more of their useful data onto public-facing websites that are easy to use—and to improve the quality of this information to enable better public oversight and allow apps builders to make the data useful. The websites data.gov and usaspending.gov offer a wealth of information. The U.S. Geological Service has streams delivering data that boaters and fisherman use to plan their trips and stay safe. There should be more such resources.
The Biden Administration can also remake executive agency websites so that they are less “advertorial” and more informational. The citizen going to a government website wants facts, not feel-good pap peddled by blogging deputy assistant secretaries.
The President and Congress can take many other actions to bolster public belief in the federal government. It will take time; as any public-relations expert will tell you, changing long-held misimpressions requires sustained effort.
But the onus is also on American citizens. We have forgotten the many ways in which government information improves our lives. We too easily trust rumors originating with political operatives and unknown trolls on the internet. E pluribus unum requires us to do better, too.
John Maxwell Hamilton is a global fellow with the Wilson Center, serves on the faculty for Louisiana State University, and is author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda (2020). Kevin R. Kosar is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They are authors of the 2016 R Street research report, Government Information and Propaganda: How to Draw the Line?
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