The mayor of Muncie, Indiana is amazingly forthright. She speaks for most politicians.
Over lunch in a downtown restaurant, McShurley looks back on four years of voter discontent and says, “We have ourselves to blame.” In 2008, she had confessed that her election was the result of a less-than-honest campaign: While promising to bring new jobs to the city, she didn’t tell voters that they would have to settle for far less pay and benefits in postindustrial Muncie. “They want $30-an-hour factory jobs, $15-an-hour benefits packages. No continuing education,” a dismissive McShurley told a reporter a few months into her term. “They want it just like their grandparents had it, just like some of their parents had it.”
Four years later, McShurley has little regret. “Why wasn’t I more honest with voters?” she asks. It’s a rhetorical question: “They didn’t want to hear it.” Voters may have lost faith in their leaders, but the leaders, too, have lost faith in the people. McShurley didn’t trust voters to accept the truth in 2007, so she danced around it. It’s no wonder that just 19 percent of the voting-eligible public cast ballots in last year’s mayoral race. And it’s a national problem: After a 50-year decline, just 14 percent of respondents in a 2011 Gallup Poll said that the federal government could be trusted “a great deal.” It’s a vicious cycle. Voters don’t like hard truths; so politicians spin us; so we don’t trust politicians; so politicians pander and lie to us.
In this, too, Muncie’s story is the story of America.
But this is not a new story. It’s just that voters today don’t care. They don’t vote.
Muncie is a microcosm of a nation whose motto could be, “In Nothing We Trust.” Seven in 10 Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track; eight in 10 are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Only 23 percent have confidence in banks, and just 19 percent have confidence in big business. Less than half the population expresses “a great deal” of confidence in the public-school system or organized religion. “We have lost our gods,” says Laura Hansen, an assistant professor of sociology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. “We lost [faith] in the media: Remember Walter Cronkite? We lost it in our culture: You can’t point to a movie star who might inspire us, because we know too much about them. We lost it in politics, because we know too much about politicians’ lives. We’ve lost it—that basic sense of trust and confidence—in everything.”
This nation is ready for big changes. It will take a financial crisis to shake the foundations. We are going to get one.
Reform starts locally, not in Washington. Washington cannot be repaired.