Immigration and Trust in Government: R.I.P. Part 1

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on May 17, 2013

We are often reminded that America is diverse country held together by a commitment to a creedal core and that is partially true. But it is also a country held together by a common cultural heritage and the set of premises and institutions that follow from it. And, finally but crucially, it also is bound together by the feelings of emotional attachment that the members of America's national community feel toward the country, its public institutions, and to some degree each other.

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Of all the public institutions that are important in American life, none has a greater impact over longer periods of time for community members than the country’s national, state and local governments and the executive and administrative agencies for which they are responsible.

Americans are famously not obsessed with politics, as are members of some other national communities. Nonetheless, they are all deeply embedded in the country’s political life nonetheless. The myriad rules and regulations of the country touch every member of the community, from birth through death, whether they care about politics or not.

Most Americans do not follow the daily ins and outs of policy or political fights. They have some information about some policy issues, a set of political preferences that help to orientate them in lieu of detailed knowledge and analysis, and a general sense of how well the government, its leaders, and institutions are performing. Some of that general sense is decidedly partisan; we tend give leaders and policies that seems consistent with our views the benefit of the doubt.

Yet, sometimes issues can break through this partisan frame, especially when the public combines a generally low level of detailed information with an understanding that the issue is important and carries with it high-stakes consequences. Immigration is one of those issues.

In these circumstances how the public views the fairness and the adequacy of the debate, and how well the outcome accords with how they come to think the problem should be resolved, results in an accumulated sense of either public satisfaction or disapproval. In short, how the immigration issue is handled and how well the results accord with the public's sense of legitimacy exert a force that even partisanship cannot fully extinguish.

That sense of legitimacy stands at the very core of the concept of Trust in Government.

Trust is the invisible glue that holds the web of community members and their institutions together. Americans may not know much about the substantive intricacies of national security policy, immigration policy, or quantitative easing but they have or can develop some sense of whether their leaders have been honest with them, whether their policies are fair and appropriate and, not to be forgotten, whether they are likely or seem to work.

The word trust means just that. It is a somewhat of a fragile leap of faith on the part of the public toward the policy honesty and evenhandedness of their leaders, the policies their leaders are promoting, and the methods by which those preferences are being pushed.

No one paying the slightest attention to how the immigration debate is unfolding could possibly use those words to describe either the process or the debate.

Next: Immigration and Trust in Government: R.I.P. Part 2?