For nearly four months, Americans have heard about polls that show their trust in government has surged to heights unseen since the 1960s. As is often the case, there is less — and more — to these polls than meets the eye.
As the story goes: with the destruction of the World Trade Center, the imminence of a domestic terrorist threats, and the putative need for additional expansive powers for government, politicians unleashed (and the liberal media cheered) a wave of new spending, new controls, and new powers for the federal government.
But a few days ago, Americans everywhere got the perfect example of how deceptive media polling can be and how its influence on reasoned debate is often so destructive.
ABCNews.com reported that the public "by a wide margin" trusts the federal government when it comes to handling national defense and the war on terrorism," but "when it comes to handling social issues, American's distrust of government remains high."
Nearly seven in 10 voters (68 percent) trust the government to handle "national security." And a corresponding 61 percent do not trust government to handle "social issues" — the generic term for the ever-expanding welfare state.
Sixty-one percent were unbelievers!
What a difference this frame of reference would have made on political debate in Washington. If journalists and representatives had made this distinction and such public opinion had been part of the public dialogue about the role of government, the unchecked ability to expand government might have met some rhetorical resistance for once.
The very fact that tests of trust in government are so rare and journalistic interpretation is so often sloppy is proof once again thatmedia outlets not only can manipulate polling, but they do.
In a bid to resurrect the era of big government, it doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to see that liberty is often the first victim when editors and pollsters get together to write questions.
Journalistic bias and pollsters' lack of reflection has repeatedly put premiums on politicians who take instant government action, rewarding incompetence with more spending and little demand for reform.
This iron triangle of journalists, pollsters, and politicians then lets out a univocal cry for more regulation in the wake of every national disaster, school-yard shooting, or whatever gauzy stories of misfortune are drummed up for polling ratification.
But such imposition of the federal government in the name of quick-fix democracy is the exact opposite of what America's Founders intended.
A good government made up of a free citizenry "does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests," Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist.
As perhaps the strongest advocate of central government of the Founders, even Hamilton was wary of demagogues and mob rule. Without the Constitution's refraction of power, the government would disintegrate quickly into tyranny. Thomas Jefferson agreed, remarking that tyrannies can be defined as easily by 173 despots as by one in government.
In Federalist 52, Hamilton reminds us why the Constitution limited government: "With less power . . . to abuse, the federal representatives can be less tempted on one side, and will be doubly watched on the other."
As ABC News showed, there is far more to American weariness about the expanding tentacles of government than an unthinking "cynicism."
It's no coincidence that cynicism has grown in direct proportion to the growth of government, crusading left-wing journalists, and their self-ratifying polls.
As government grows bigger and drifts from its core functions (such as the defense of the borders) it trivializes itself, proving in a thousand ways its incompetence and the intractability of the human soul to mechanistic bureaucratic solutions.
And 61 percent of Americans know it.
What today's legions of political front-men deride as cynicism would not have been objectionable to America's Founders. They would have called it vigilance. The only difference is that early American patriots, such as Patrick Henry, married vigilance to terms like "manly fortitude" and the "jealous protection of liberty."
In other words, the Founders cultivated realism about government as a spur to limited (not just small) government, policed by a vigilant citizenry who understand that everyone is equal under the law — especially those in power.
Media polling has become an aid and ally in the effort to expand the size and scope government. At key moments, subtly written polls can be used to show support for new regulations, new agencies, and new spending, or they can be used to attack reformers who wish to restrain, modify, or reduce the money and power in the hands of the government. It's up to citizens to be vigilant enough to know the difference.