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How Government Weakens Societal Trust

Yesterday, the Barack Obama Twitter feed (@BarackObama) sent out two humorously timed messages. First it tweeted out a quote from the president, timed for Bill of Rights Day: “The Bill of Rights is the foundation of American liberty, securing our most fundamental rights.” It then followed about an hour later with this one: “There’s a lot to do during the holidays. Check this off your to-do list now,” with a link to a page about signing up for ObamaCare–a juxtaposition that may remind the public, even if unintentionally, of the incompatibility of some of those “fundamental rights” and the president’s vision for the country.

It was one of many such tweets from the account, which is a spin shop run by the remnants of the president’s reelection campaign, seeking to make the Christmas holiday about Obama and his health-care law. Another: “May your days be merry and bright, and may your Christmas include a conversation about health insurance.” Now, the president’s intrusive behavior and his supporters’ creepy propaganda campaigns are not exactly shocking; I’ve written about them before, as when they tried to make Thanksgiving not about your family but about the First Family. And it’s also not surprising because an administration that forces the government into your bedroom (as ObamaCare does) will not hesitate to join you in the living room, dining room, kitchen, and wherever else it can pester you about politics.

But the timing of this campaign is instructive because it coincides with some troubling new social science research that it also helps explain. The Economist’s Lexington column recently attempted to tackle the issue of new polling and research that shows plummeting levels of societal trust in America. Lexington is quick to point out that Americans’ sense of their own country’s corruption is wildly out of proportion; a visit to Europe or Asia would disabuse them of the notion that they are living in a relatively corrupt nation. But that’s actually part of the point; the perception is itself a great challenge. Lexington writes:

Grim findings have been coming thick and fast. Most Americans no longer see President Barack Obama as honest. Half think that he “knowingly lied” to pass his Obamacare health law. Fewer than one in five trust the government in Washington to do what is right all or most of the time. Confidence in Congress has fallen to record lows: in America, as in Italy and Greece, just one in ten voters expresses trust or confidence in the national parliament. Frankly straining credulity, a mammoth, 107-country poll by Transparency International, a corruption monitor, this summer found Americans more likely than Italians to say that they feel that the police, business and the media are all “corrupt or extremely corrupt”.

Americans are also turning on one another. Since 1972 the Chicago-based General Social Survey (GSS) has been asking whether most people can be trusted, or whether “you can’t be too careful” in daily life. Four decades ago Americans were evenly split. Now almost two-thirds say others cannot be trusted, a record high. Recently the Associated Press sought to add context to the GSS data, asking Americans if they placed much trust in folk they met away from home, or in the workers who swiped their payment cards when out shopping. Most said no.

Some of this is unremarkable; the president wasn’t truthful with the public, so he has lost their trust. Lexington then brings up the debate over ObamaCare to illustrate this lack of trust, knocking conservatives for painting the health-care law as redistributionist and therefore proving themselves to lack compassion and fuel suspicion: “The country faces a crisis of mutual resentment, masquerading as a general collapse in national morale.” And yet, it is the voices of the left most loudly declaring ObamaCare to be a wealth transfer; see here and here, for example. It is advertised as such.

And that illuminates an important point. It’s not the opposition to ObamaCare that threatens to fray the ties that bind American society; it’s the support. The Barack Obama Twitter feed is a perfect example of this. ObamaCare and its attendant propaganda campaign do two things. First the law itself elbows in on space reserved for civil society and the private sector by having the government call the shots on the transformation of the American health-care sector. It does this by forcing Americans off private health insurance and onto government-run versions; eroding the various voluntary constructs to get group health insurance; outlawing faith groups’ practices; and other ways.

Second, the politicization of society that comes with the government both eroding the private sector and declaring national and religious holidays to now be about Obama poisons previously nonpartisan events. The public may have already been more divided along partisan lines, but that line was not supposed to be part of Thanksgiving dinner. You could be reasonably expected to check your partisanship at the door, because there are more important things than the president’s ego–pretty much everything, in fact.

There are millions throughout the country now dealing with the fact that ObamaCare has taken away their health insurance. The president wants his young devotees to find members of their family dealing with this stress and pour salt into the wound by spinning it as a good thing. Of course, plenty of families talk politics anyway at the dinner table. But when the government arms its supporters with talking points and instructions to push those talking points on their family and friends, the partisan line elbows its way into everything. That’s not healthy for the country–no matter what insurance they have.

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