In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, I was once again reminded of how painful it has become to watch what passes for political discussion/debate in this country.
We have always had disputes about policy, about the proper role of government and the reach of the federal courts. We always will have those disagreements, and that’s how it should be. What is qualitatively different about our current discourse is the degree of suspicion and paranoia that characterizes it. Americans simply do not trust the motives of those in government, and as a result of that distrust, we are unwilling to grant that honorable people of good will can come to different conclusions about the problems we face.
In Distrust, American Style, I investigated the sources and consequences of that distrust. The sources were easy enough to identify: for the past two decades, we’ve seen massive betrayals by businesses and Wall Street, scandals in institutions ranging from churches to major league sports, obscene amounts of money being spent on lobbying for legal advantage and more recently, poured into Super Pacs. There are undeniable reasons for our current levels of cynicism and distrust.
The problem is, when citizens don’t know who they can trust, they don’t trust anyone, and politics becomes impossible.
Yes, there are bad corporate actors–but there are also scores of good corporate citizens. Yes, there are politicians who are “on the take” and/or beholden to those who finance their campaigns, but there are also many, many good public servants who genuinely are trying to do the right thing. Yes, there are judges whose ideology drives their decision-making, but there are many more who divorce their policy preferences from their responsibility to faithfully apply the law.
Wholesale distrust makes for toxic politics.
It is one thing to disagree with President Obama’s priorities and policies–quite another to suggest, as “commentators” on Fox News and others regularly do, that he is a Kenyan Muslim Socialist who wants to destroy the United States. It’s one thing to disagree with Senator Lugar, quite another to suggest that his ability to work with Democrats on national security issues makes him unfit to hold office. You may disagree with the Court’s analysis of the healthcare law (although very few people seem to know enough about the actual law to form a reasoned opinion), but to suggest that Chief Justice Roberts is a “traitor” or (more bizarrely) that his opinion was flawed because he takes epilepsy medication is to embrace paranoia.
We have reached such levels of derangement that we no longer believe anything we don’t want to believe–and thanks to technology, we can choose to inhabit media environments that reinforce our most unhinged conspiracy theories.
We don’t trust the “lame stream” media (or what is left of it). We don’t trust businesses or unions. We don’t trust the courts. We don’t trust the President, Congress or the Supreme Court. Increasingly, we don’t trust each other.
This is no way to run a country.
It won’t be easy, but rational people need to insist on measures that will make our governing institutions trustworthy again–beginning with more transparency and more control of money in politics. If we can restore a measure of basic trust in the good will of those we elect, perhaps we can begin to calm the crazy and actually talk to each other again.
Failing that, maybe Prozac in the water supply??