Absence of Trust

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??


  1. Sheila; this is a strong, on-target article that needs to go public. PLEASE, can you forward a copy to the Star. Your words reach to the heart of the seemingly unsolvable problems in this country today. We all need to be reminded of what we used to stand for in America and as Americans. We have lost sight of what is reality and what is fantasy; we also have serious problems separating truth from outlandish lies by too many elected officials and the media. We need to search our own hearts for answers and seek guidance from whatever our higher power may be. Please do pass this most important message along so it will reach more than those of us who know you are here to inform and remind us to think before accepting the words of a well-known person or political leader. Thank you for taking time from your vacation to continue informing and enlightening us.

  2. Greater transparency and control of money in elections sounds wonderful.

    Will we have bipartisan expectations of these improvements and clamor for them by a press holding the toes of both sides to the fire?

    Will our Constitutionally-protected press demand our major Presidential candidates of both parties share birth, educational, medical, and political records with the same zeal we demand financial records of one candidate? Or, this transparency is only deemed necessary for one side?

    Will rooting out monetary influence in elections include both corporate and union influence, or that’s a different kettle of fish?

    I agree on our incredibly dire need for trust in government. Will we really get it without holding both sides to the same standards?

  3. Hi,

    There is a sci-fi novel about China where they do put a mild drug in the water supply. It keeps most happy and complacent. The few that aren’t content can be controlled. The theory is to keep 90% happy.

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