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It was a rainy gritty day when I walked to vote in my early voting place. The wind was cold and strong. Yet I took each step with purpose and hope because I believe in democracy. I believe that the government has the potential to fight for its people. But not everybody feels this way.
The very trust that binds democracies together is at a near historic low. Covid-19 conspiracy theorists spout harmful misinformation attacking public health experts. The global coverage of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor opened America’s eyes to the injustices of police brutality.
Insurrectionists successfully stormed the Capitol to “take back” their country. Former President Donald Trump primed his base with accusations of voter fraud months before the first vote was cast and manipulated 72 percent of Republicans who continued to question the election results even after losing or withdrawing over four dozen lawsuits. How can one trust a government whose own head calls its integrity into question?
Even Harvard has not escaped a declining regard for our public institutions. In the last 10 years, the number of Government concentrators has declined by 34 percent. This past spring, only 4 percent of seniors entering the workforce went into public service or non-profits, and an even lower 3 percent went into government or politics.
Democracies are built on trust. Citizens must have faith in their government for it to be successful. The governed have to believe that their voice will be heard, that elections are open and fair to all, that every citizen can participate fully no matter their race or ethnicity. The governed have to have faith that that elected representatives will respond to the collective voice of their voters, that the government will pursue policies that help the people.
The solution to reviving public trust and thus revitalizing our democracy is not a government that sits idly by. The solution to distrust of government is big government.
Bold ambitious policies that tangibly impact the lives of Americans are crucial. People need to see the government in action firsthand to believe in government again, and the demand is there. The vast majority of Americans believe that the government should play a major role in fighting for the people: ensuring everyone has access to healthcare, protecting the environment, investing in infrastructure, and alleviating poverty. These might sound like progressive priorities, but these are American priorities.
One such policy that is critical to increasing public trust is raising the minimum wage to a living wage that also keeps up with inflation. Government transfer payments benefit workers in effect, but the psychological impact of a wage gain would outweigh that of a perceived handout. Of course, it is important to retain transfer programs like the earned income tax credit, but raising wages has an additional synergistic effect of people believing in their own worth as well as the value of a caring federal government. The contributions of workers have been devalued for far too long — median and lower-income households have faced stagnant wages since the 1970s while their productivity has grown. At the same time, they watched the income of the top one percent skyrocket. Public trust is no trickle down matter. We need to build it back up from the bottom up. A government that sees the worth of its own people will earn the people’s trust.
Another crucial step in resurrecting public trust is much-needed election reform, starting with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to reinstate voting rights and the For the People Act to reform the campaign finance system and ensure election integrity. Instituting public financing of elections and limiting the influence of special interests will prevent the voices of the few from trampling the many. The government must also update our voting system and put in place election security measures so governments (foreign or our own) can’t tamper with our elections. Belief in free and fair elections are a cornerstone to a healthy democracy.
As a matter of rebuilding public trust, everyday encounters with government matter too. For example, reinvesting in infrastructure (with the added benefit of creating jobs) should be part of the arsenal in rebuilding public trust. The 2017 American Society for Civil Engineers Report Card gave American infrastructure an overall D+ rating, while roads and drinking water languished at a D score. The devastating practical and psychological effects of poisonous tap water or crumbling roads ties the idea of government with incompetence and gross negligence. On the other hand, programs like Medicaid are popular because the people have seen firsthand how these government programs make a big difference in their lives.
When people think of the government, they should instead think of public servants looking out for every American every day or policies that have improved their everyday lives.
Americans need to believe that our democracy can work again, and that belief can only be earned through bold concrete results. Raising the minimum wage, ensuring free and fair elections, revitalizing our crumbling infrastructure, and other policies designed to fight for the people should not be seen as government overreach, but rather the government proving that they deserve the public’s trust, that they are upholding the social contract. It’s time for the U.S. government to show that this house deserves to stand.
Hyuntae Choi ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor.
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