I am far more worried about an invisible epidemic than I am about H1N1. I’m referring to the spread of distrust that has become contagion beyond all reasonable boundaries. Politicians have always borne the brunt of mistrust. It comes with the job, since no piece of legislation satisfies all constituencies, not even tax cuts and cheap drugs. But when mistrust becomes the actual, avowed basis for politics, healthy skepticism has turned malignant.Right now, the political credo has shifted from “I don’t trust your position on the issues” to “I don’t trust who you are and everybody like you.” We would be ashamed to apply such an attitude to people of color, although it was common enough in the past. Yet on every side the accusations of bad faith fly thick and fast. The Republicans who oppose healthcare reform aren’t so much a dissenting minority as a faction that wants to destroy the Democrats. This is bad faith in action. It has no interest in finding the right answer to a sore dilemma. Its ambition is merely to discredit, vilify, and cast the seeds of toxic mistrust.
A year or so ago I wrote a post outlining why those in Congress don’t vote their conscience. My tone was objective but also sympathetic. Politics is entangled with human nature. Under peer pressure, party allegiance, fundraising obligations, enticing lobbyists, and battling constituencies at home, no senator can vote his conscience all the time. That’s understandable. What’s not understandable is not having a conscience, checking it at the door when it comes time to consider the challenges that lie ahead.
It shows bad faith to care only about your re-election. It shows bad faith to treat influence peddling as normal, to shut out all opinions except those that follow party lines, to pretend to be sincere, to work on behalf of lobbyists. Perhaps the situation isn’t as dire as the wholesale betrayal of trust exhibited during the healthcare debate. There, despite obvious good faith on President Obama’s part, he was unable to steer Congress away from its worst tendencies.
The spectacle was so distressing that some commentators opined that the whole system is broken, that America can no longer find the best — or even good — solutions to difficult problems. Certainly the current healthcare legislation is far from solving endemic problems like rising medical costs and the widespread practice of prescribing unnecessary tests in order to get a bigger paycheck. But the system isn’t broken despite its current deep malaise. A broken system wouldn’t have rallied so many Americans to demand change and elect such a good-faith President.
I think the next year will tell the tale. This contagion has been around a long time. Watergate brought mistrust to a high level in 1974 with the disgrace of Nixon; the absurd impeachment of Clinton a generation later showed that what was once shocking has become ordinary. When bad faith has turned into business as usual, as it did in the reign of Tom DeLay and the Iraq War, one must expect a long, long recuperation. Which is where we are now. The Obama administration isn’t just fixing America after a period of reactionary, corrupt neglect. It is trying to replace bad faith with its opposite: candor, truth, honest intentions, fair dealing, and bipartisanship.
We can’t expect overnight success. This is a wall that will move only by leaning against it day after day, month after month. It may be in the cards that Obama will become a sacrificial lamb to public distress and mistrust. The problems may be too big for him to fix. The reactionaries from Nixon onward have had a long time to work their mischief. I hope that won’t happen, because deep down, this isn’t a country founded on bad faith. It doesn’t come naturally to the American spirit, and in reviving that spirit, Obama is trusting that the truth hasn’t been fatally corrupted. What better example of good faith than that?
PUBLISHED AT SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE