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Trust in government begins with trustworthy politicians

When politicians issue orders without obeying them, government becomes illegitimate.

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Clouds roll over the U.S. Capitol dome as dusk approaches, Wednesday, June 12, 2019, in Washington.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

In recent months, we’ve seen countless stories about public officials imposing one set of rules on their constituents while refusing to follow the same rules themselves. It’s chilling that some elected politicians even think it’s OK to issue stay-at-home orders from the airport or exotic vacation locations.

For many Americans, that’s simply what they’ve come to expect from the political world. There’s one set of rules for the elites and another for the rest of us.

However, such behavior is far more alarming and dangerous than mere hypocrisy. It’s a fundamental threat to our Constitutional system of checks and balances. It’s one of the reasons that our government today lacks the legitimacy that comes from earning the consent of the governed.

To understand why, it’s helpful to look at the Federalist Papers. That collection of thoughtful articles was written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to advocate ratification of the Constitution.

In Federalist 57, James Madison wrote about tools the public could use to control Congress. He recognized that we needed more than “parchment barriers” (written rules) to protect the public from a self-serving political elite. In his view, one of the biggest practical restraints was that the legislators “can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends.” That, he added, was part of “the genius of the whole system.”

Unfortunately, that part of the system is not working today. Mayors, governors and other elected politicians have become quite comfortable issuing orders without obeying them.

I bring this up in the context of my recent columns about what might follow the transition years of President Joe Biden’s term in office. A new generation of leaders will arise, one of whom will grow to have a lasting impact like the two most influential presidents of the last century — Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

It’s impossible to know what the specific policies of that president will be (or which political party they’ll come from). But the primary task of that president won’t involve creating new government programs or crafting new economic policies. She or he will have to restore the legitimacy of our government.

Among other things, that means insisting that elected officials live under the rules they write for the rest of us. Another important step will be to restore trust in our elections. We have now had two presidential elections in a row where a significant segment of the population believes the wrong person was declared the winner. All the procedural checks and balances in the world won’t work if people don’t have confidence in the basic fairness and legitimacy of elections.

Thematically, these and related steps are needed to restore the proper relationship between the American people and its government. We need more tools to hold our elected and appointed government officials accountable. Such actions are essential if we want to get our nation back on the path of pursuing the founding ideals of freedom, equality and self-governance.

This may not sound like a terribly flashy agenda. To some, it sounds like nothing more than getting back to basics. But if a president can change our political system to restore our trust in government, their influence will be felt for generations. Not only that, voters would likely bestow on such a president something our nation hasn’t seen in a long time: the first presidential landslide victory since 1984.

Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”