Long before the Tonight Show, late night TV icon Johnny Carson was hosted a game show entitled “Who Do You Trust?”
If this show was still on the air today, and the topic was “Oklahoma Government,” it would likely be difficult to stretch contestants’ answers into the half-hour program. That’s because, data show, Oklahomans’ answers would be “no one.”
As focus shifts from the primary election to upcoming runoffs followed by the November general elections, candidates seek votes from a public that is expressing significant discontentment. Data from a survey on political attitudes conducted for the Oklahoma Engaged project show Democrats don’t trust Republicans — and vice versa.
On its own, this might not seem surprising, but a closer examination of the data suggests Democrats really don’t trust Democratic politicians — and Republicans in Oklahoma don’t trust fellow Republicans either.
“I am a registered Republican, and I can’t stand those guys,” said Michael Blechner, who lives in the Gilcrease Hills area of Osage County. He says there is plenty of blame to go around.
“It is just frustrating,” he said. “We need people who will stop using slogans — stop thinking in terms of slogans — and try to figure out what’s happening.”
Gail Harris, who lives between Sperry and Owasso in Tulsa County, sounded similar dissatisfaction. She cites a recent surge of Oklahoma lawmakers forced to resign in scandal as an example, but Harris thinks the biggest problem is the influence lobbyists have over state legislators and agency officials.
“It is a good ‘ol boy state. You give me money, and I’ll do what you want,” she said. “The people don’t get to decide. It is all politically motivated.”
The data show 60 percent of survey respondents — voters and non-voters alike — view the Democrats in a negative light. That number is lower for Republicans, which 46 percent of respondents viewed the as “somewhat unfavorable” or “very unfavorable,” but likely still high enough to induce anxiety among candidates and party officials.
Crisis in confidence
When did this confidence crisis begin? Some Oklahomans say they have long been disillusioned with governmental leaders. Others trace it back to Vietnam or Watergate. But for Avant School Superintendent Cindi Hemm, her trust began to slip eight years ago and started at the top of Oklahoma government.
Hemm says the biggest problem is a leadership vacuum in the governor’s office. How would she fix that?
“I would replace Mary Fallin, and we are going to be doing that anyway,” she said. “I would certainly elect someone who really focuses on public school education and helps us with the money — and helps us with social services, mental health. Those things that have been cut through her administration.”
The news media itself is also catching some of the blame from Oklahoma voters like Broken Arrow auto parts dealer Jeff Smith, who thinks there is less coverage from newspapers, TV and radio on what is happening at the state capitol. Smith suspects lawmakers know they are not being watched as closely as in the past.
“I think it boils down to there is no accountability at the state level,” he said. “There needs to be audits where the public can see. And there needs to be media coverage of those audits, so people know what is really going on. We need people out there who will cover that so we can make informed decisions on how to vote in our future elections.”
So, how do we fix all this? Tighter term limits or lobbying reform? What about stricter ethics regulations? Whatever the solutions might be, Christina George from Tulsa doesn’t think politicians will go for it.
“I believe that the legislatures listen to the people who are going to help them maintain that seat,” she said.
Oklahoma Engaged is a public service journalism collaboration of KOSU, KGOU, KWGS, KCCU, and StateImpact Oklahomawith support from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation, and listener contributions. Here you’ll find community stories, audio reports, snapshots, state question breakdowns, profiles, videos, and more.