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What's wrong with government? For starters, almost everything

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - The people have spoken, and for the most part, they are not happy. For many Americans, the recent government shutdown was just one more reason for them to be dissatisfied.

When the Beacon asked, through our Public Insight Network, for people to share how their personal experiences have shaped their views of government, only one had a "positive" view of government today. Black, white and Hispanic; young and old; male and female; Democrat, Libertarian and independent (no Republicans responded), all of the others expressed negative or mixed feelings about our government. (Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

For the one, Stephen Comfort-Mason, of Des Peres, most of his attitude is based on his reactions to local or state services. But even this positive thinker, whose father and grandfather were political and judicial figures, had a critical eye toward politics on a broader scale.

Comfort-Mason, 67, is a Democrat. His father, William Lowe Mason III, served as a circuit judge in Lawrence County, in southwest Missouri; his grandfather, William Lowe Mason II, was president of the St. Louis Board of Alderman in the 1930s and later was a circuit judge in St. Louis.

Comfort-Mason began with praise for the Missouri secretary of state for maintaining a well-organized website. And the trash collection and street maintenance in his municipality are among other signs that his government is working well for him.

But as an atheist, he believes there should be a "total, complete, and absolute elimination of any trace of religion in government."

"This means prayers at government assemblies of any kind ... purpose, regardless of how much our representatives might need guidance from a higher source. This means elected officials mentioning their God, or their Bible, or anything else in anyway related to religion as they campaign or work to retain their office," he wrote in response to the PIN query. "This means getting rid of 'under God.' in the Pledge of Allegiance, and 'In God We Trust' off our currency.

The retired television reporter and internet technology contractor shared the views of others when he called for changes in campaign contribution laws, the length of political campaigns and the rights of voters.

"I believe that corporations are not people, and must be significantly restricted in their ability to donate money to political candidates or causes. I do not believe that any person or organization should be permitted to contribute more than $2,000 to any single political candidate, cause, amendment or political organization.

Overall, Comfort-Mason said, "I have always understood the value of government in our society, despite its flaws."

Others, however, had decidedly more negative views.

Among them is Michael Berger, 48, of Imperial, Mo. Berger is a political independent and owns a plastic recycling business.

"Here is one specific example from a small business owner," he wrote. "My potential vendors request credit and banking references  to determine my company's ability to pay for the materials we purchase.

"Not all that long ago, the practice was to submit by fax a request for general banking information: average balance, how long account has been open, any bounced checks, etc. Bank reps would complete a fax with general answers. When we checked business customer's credit, we could pay LexisNexus a one-time fee to get a credit report on the potential customer.

"Not only am I unable to purchase this info to check credit on my potential customers, but now my business bank will not provide any banking references to potential suppliers. Their legal department tells me that they cannot provide the general responses as they used to because of government privacy regulations.

"However, they are willing to provide answers to these inquiries from a centralized office that has no direct knowledge of me, as my local branch does, for a fee of $25. Furthermore, the credit rating agencies that provide personal credit reports — the three majors — also sell identity theft protection."

For Berger, his view of government "has become significantly worse over time. I used to believe in 'the system.' I no longer suffer from that delusion."

He wrote that he would like to see "a common sense approach to legal reform that levels the playing field for those who play by the rules and provides significant consequences for those who do not.

"For example: J.P. Morgan and the Wall Street bankers who knowingly provided mortgages to customers who had no ability to repay the borrowed money and then subsequently bet against their own loans as they bundled and sold them, should do time. All of the senior executives should be in jail."

Other negative views

James Stroup, 66, of Sappington is an Army veteran, a retired machinist and a Democrat.

"It used to be that having a government job meant that a person was honest and respected. Now it is just the opposite."

Stroup would like to see an "end to unlimited corporate donations (buying) to elected officials."

Chris Patterson, 39, of O'Fallon, Mo., is a master electrician and a Libertarian.

"I'm an electrical contractor and hold electrical licenses in several jurisdictions in the metro area. I've been trying for seven or eight years to get a license in St. Louis County, to no avail.

"I have a license in St. Louis, which has the exact same requirements as St. Louis County. The St. Louis County Electrical Board is a group of unelected appointees. They are appointed by the county executive. They claim they cannot verify my experience, even though I've been in business here in Missouri for seven years.

"I believe this board has an agenda. That agenda is to keep non-union contractors out of St. Louis County.

"I'd like to see term limits ... for everything from alderman to senator. Eliminate the possibility of someone being a 'career politician. I'd like to see an end to political appointments, or at least a system to review appointments — checks and balances."

Shirley Bryan, 80, of Bridgeton, is a Democrat and formerly worked in accounting.

She is unhappy about the kind of response she has received from her political representatives.

"During the government shutdown, I called U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner's office to express my dismay about this. I was told that many people were contacting her and almost all of them disagreed with the stand the Republicans were taking. Yet Wagner voted 'no' to ending the shutdown, while appearing publicly to say how delighted she was that it had been settled. In a letter from her, she stated that she would continue to do everything in her power to see 'Obamacare' fail. 

"This is not the first time Wagner has acted in this fashion. She voted against the Violence Against Women Act, but sent out her newsletter saying she had supported it. Seems she voted 'for' the Republican version (which failed) but voted 'no' on the final (Democratic) version, which passed.

"Fair enough. But to then claim she had supported it is enough to tell me she cannot be trusted."

Over time, Bryan wrote, her views of government and political leaders have changed.

"Every state should be forced to use a non-partisan method to re-draw congressional districts. I believe enough people would sign a petition for a congressional amendment to bring this about. I wish someone would take it upon themself to make this happen."

Justin Ströhm, 29, of St. Louis, is a political independent and owns a small-scale property redevelopment business. 

"St. Louis has a division known as the Land Reutilization Authority, whose sole function is to hold thousands of parcels of land for distribution to large-scale private developers in return for political favors.

"There is a red light camera system that has been defeated in numerous court challenges and yet continues to operate for the enrichment of the private contractor who administrates the system.

"I was a progressive in 2008, but disillusionment due to the policies advanced by the Obama administration has caused me to identify most closely with anarchism today."

Mixed views

Ronald Hodges, 59, of Kirkwood is a Democrat and works as an auto technician.

"We need jobs, more recreation and ways to get parents to be more involved with their young people. I know that people of their communities need to step up to the plate, but our local government could assist more."

"We must find a way to hold our government more responsible when they are not doing the job. Cut off their pay, or be able to find a way to get rid of them without waiting for an election to be able to do it."

John S. Harris, 67, of St. Louis, is a Democrat and a teacher.

"Living through the Vietnam war as a conscientious objector and the civil rights era as an activist taught me that a vigilant press and an independent legal establishment are necessary to make government work, i.e. function as an entity with moral awareness and concern for justice.

"The separation of St. Louis and St. Louis County is still the biggest obstacle observed in my life to progress in this part of the state, economically, socially, educationally, etc.

What changes would he like to see?

"Even stronger protection of voting rights; more restriction on corporate
wealth in politics; redistricting (gerrymandering) seen for what it is — antidemocratic — and stopped. I still believe we the people can get it right, if not systematically shut out of the process by entrenched privileged interests."

Concepcion De La Cruz, 74, of Webster Groves, is a Democrat and a retired civil service worker.

"I find the recent (government) shutdown very shameful and disgusting. I feel our tax dollars are being misused. If this were a private business, I would not be surprised if they were all fired.

"I also think there is a racial bias against President Obama. Some people cannot accept that a member of the African race has been elected president.

"I still see the need for change. I believe in a democracy and wonder when America is going to get one.

"I would like to see our officials elected on merit, rather than wealth. I would like to see our elected officials take their job seriously in knowing that they have been elected to serve us, not their pocketbooks. I would like to do away with the Electoral College. One vote per citizen and whoever gets the most votes wins."

Inform our coverage

This report was informed by sources in the St. Louis Beacon and the Nine Network of Public Media's Public Insight Network®.

The Beacon, in partnership with the Nine Network, uses this journalism tool to help us learn what learn about — and share — the news that matters to you.

Outreach specialist Linda Lockhart has been telling stories for most of her life. A graduate of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, she has worked at several newspapers around the Midwest, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as a reporter, copy editor, make-up editor, night city editor, wire editor, Metro Section editor and editorial writer. She served the St. Louis Beacon as analyst for the Public Insight Network, a product of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media that helps connect journalists with news sources. She continues using the PIN to help inform the news content of St. Louis Public Radio. She is a St. Louis native and lives in Kirkwood.