by John Walker
4th July 1988

This essay was written in 1988 as an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal which declined to publish it. I am usually early in my prognostications. A quarter century later a Rasmussen poll found that just 21% of likely voters in the U.S. believed that the federal government had the consent of the governed.

The tenor of the political discourse over a five- to ten-year period often comes to be characterized by a single word. In the late Sixties, “credibility” was a central issue; in the Seventies, “limits”; in the Eighties, “opportunity”.

As the Eighties draw to a close and the Reagan era ends, many have speculated on what will become the central issue of the Nineties. I would like to suggest that the word we will use in retrospect to describe the politics of the Nineties is “legitimacy”—whether the government in Washington is believed, by a majority of Americans, to be the legitimate government of their country, a government protecting their common interests and wisely disposing of that portion of the nation's wealth it appropriates for itself.

This is not to suggest that the Washington government is illegitimate in the sense of being improperly constituted, unrepresentative, or operating in defiance of the Constitution, though to the extent that incumbents pass campaign funding laws that bias the electoral process toward themselves, flout the separation of powers by prescribing foreign policy to the Executive, abuse the confirmation process, and permit the entire process of budgeting to collapse into an exercise in sophomoric brinksmanship with the very operation of the government held hostage to force the President to accede, increasing numbers of Americans may conclude that even in the legal sense our government is losing legitimacy. Intrusive legislation by the judiciary and secret wars by the White House staff further the impression of a system no longer bound by its own laws.

The question is not what policies are being proclaimed in Washington, but whether the government is capable of any effective action whatsoever concerning the issues that politicians and citizens agree need to be addressed.

Though cynicism about government and politicians is deeply rooted in the American character and older than the Constitution, the United States has, throughout its history, benefited from a very unusual and precious situation: the basic trust of the overwhelming majority of citizens in their government. Americans often forget that this is a very rare circumstance in the world—residents of most countries view what goes on in the capital as having nothing to do with their own interests and the government as largely unconcerned with its citizens, except as a source of tax revenue.

Belief in the legitimacy of the Washington government has allowed America to have a close-to-unique system of self-taxation based on trust, a volunteer military when many other liberal democracies fill their ranks with conscripts, and a relatively small underground cash economy, aside from that associated with contraband and crime. The ongoing deterioration of each of these evidences of trust limns a government losing perceived legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens.

Believers in limited government might applaud this trend, believing that as citizens lose confidence in government they will be disinclined to grant it additional responsibilities. This is a dangerous mistake. There is little evidence in history that a government needs to be considered legitimate to remain in power, except when the situation becomes so bad that revolution or foreign intervention occurs, and not even lunatics think either is likely in the United States. A government can continue to grow, consuming more and more of the productive work of a nation, becoming increasingly distant from the concerns of its constituents and disconnected from the substantive issues, while tightening its grip through an increasingly coercive relationship with the populace. The ongoing disclosures of depredations by the IRS are an indication of the extent that this shift is now underway.

As the citizenry decouples itself from the government, the tendency of Washington to be a closed company town increases apace. The issues that matter to the populace are never debated in a forthright, up-or-down manner like the great Civil Rights debates of the 1960s. The arcana that occupy official Washington: “ethics”, “continuing resolutions”, “rules”, and “disclosure” seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with providing for the common defense or promoting the general welfare. They have even less to do with justice, tranquillity, and liberty.

When political campaigns are reduced to battles over funding for television advertising in which platitudes like “leadership”, “experience”, and “management” supplant discussion of what we are going to collectively do about the realities that we're the world's largest debtor, falling ever further behind Japan in fundamental technology and manufacturing, slipping to a weak second place versus the Soviets in the military balance, and somewhere from third to fifth place in developing space, and perceived as an inconstant and unreliable ally not just by those “controversial” third world movements and countries we support, but by the countries we liberated in World War II, we face a real risk that the game of politics will be abandoned to a dwindling pool of those older people who remember when it used to matter, and a burgeoning younger generation of political entrepreneurs who view the business of Washington as taxing and dispensing favors, and self-enrichment and empowerment thereby.

It's hard to view the current crop of Presidential hopefuls without concluding this process is already under way. How many of the brilliant, talented, and hard-working people with whom this country is blessed would submit to the scrutiny, artificiality, and cynicism of a Washington which is, increasingly, causing legislators concerned with integrity and the future to leave in disgust and dismay?

The trends that destroy legitimacy seem well entrenched and self reinforcing. There is no political leader on the horizon who appears capable, or even interested, in realigning the government with the people and issues in the way that Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan did. The experience of other nations indicates the situation can get much, much worse—we have presently only a slight case of the disease, but the infection is spreading unchecked.

Legitimacy is a meta-issue; it controls to a large extent the degree to which a government may act, in the name of the governed, to resolve the substantive issues; those that determine the destiny of the nation. We are losing the bond of trust with the Washington government which has been uniquely American, enduring, and in large part responsible for America's success. We need to recognize the seriousness of this and act to fix it.