Jonathan Gruber

Americans Trust Government Less and Less Because We Know More and More About How It Operates

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Fifty years ago, FBI operatives sent Martin Luther King, Jr. was has come to be known as the "suicide letter," an anonymous note suggesting the civil rights leader should off himself before his private sex life was made public. The information about King's extramarital assignations was gathered with the approval not just of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover but Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson.

"There is but one way out for you," reads the note, which appeared in unredacted form for the first time just last week. "You better take it before your filthy fraudulent self is bared to the nation."

Thus is revealed one of the most despicable acts of domestic surveillance in memory. These days, we worry less about the government outing our sex lives than in it tracking every move we move online. It turns out that President Obama, who said he would roll back the unconstitutional powers exercised by his predecessor, had a secret "kill list" over which he was sole authority. Jesus, we've just learned that small planes are using so-called dirtboxes to pick up cell phone traffic. One of the architects of Obamacare publicly states that Americans are stupid and that the president's healthcare reform was vague and confusing on purpose. The former director of national intelligence, along with the former head and current heads of the CIA, have lied to Congress.

Is it surprising, then, that 72 percent Americans consider "big government" the largest threat to the country's future? That's more than twice the number in 1964, when the King letter was sent.

The thread—maybe it's better called a piano wire—connecting the present to the past is the subject of my latest Daily Best column. Here's part of it:

Fifty years ago—again, right around the time that the FBI was about to become the subject of a hagiographic hit TV show and trying to goad Martin Luther King, Jr. into killing himself—Richard Hofstadter was denouncing the "paranoid style in American politics,". He lamented that, "American politics has often been an arena for angry minds."

But today's lack of trust and confidence in the government doesn't seem all that angry. It's more like we're resigned to the fact that our rulers think little of us—that is, when they think of us at all. In gaining new knowledge about how people in power almost always behave, we are wiser and sadder and, one hopes, much less likely to put up with bullshit from the left, right, or center.

There's a real opportunity to the politicians, the parties, and the causes that dare to embrace real transparency —about how legislation is being crafted, about our surveillance programs at home and abroad—as a core value and something other than a throwaway slogan. But as an unbroken thread of mendacity and mischief binds the present to the past, a future in which government can be trusted seems farther off than ever.

Read the whole piece at The Daily Beast.