In 2009, I published a book with Prometheus Press. It was titled “Distrust, American Style: Diversity and the Crisis of Public Confidence,” and in it, I explored–and disagreed with–the then popular political science theory that America’s growing levels of social distrust and corresponding loss of social capital were a reaction to the country’s growing diversity, and the increasing numbers of neighbors who didn’t look like “us.”
My contrary conclusion could be summed up by an old adage: fish rot from the head.
By 2009, the failures of our social institutions had become more and more obvious–we had just had the Enron and Worldcom scandals, the Catholic Church was dealing with publicity about priestly child molestation, there were scandals in major league sports…and much more. Furthermore, as I wrote in the book, thanks to the Internet and the 24-hour “news holes” on cable television, it was the rare American who wasn’t bombarded daily with news of corporate malfeasance, the sexual escapades of “pro family” legislators and pastors, and the identity of the latest sports figure to fail a drug test.
At the same time, the Bush Administration was engaging in what then seemed an unprecedented assault on competent governance (who knew it could get worse?), exemplified by, but not limited to, the war in Iraq and the administration’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina.
In the face of so much evidence that Americans couldn’t trust our country’s most important institutions to operate honestly and effectively, is it any wonder that people were becoming wary, skeptical and distrustful?
To say that things haven’t improved since 2009 would be an enormous understatement.
This lack of trust matters. It has allowed Trump’s accusations about “fake news” to resonate, it has encouraged acceptance of conspiracy theories and dismissal of warnings about the pandemic. The incredible growth of internet propaganda and social media since 2009 has only added to the cacophony of sources, voices, points of view–and levels of distrust. Too many Americans no longer know who or what to believe. (For many of those Americans, the Supreme Court’s predictable dismissal of Texas’ ridiculous lawsuit yesterday probably came as a surprise.)
I recently read an article comparing contemporary features of what the author called our “post-truth society” to Dante’s Inferno. The article pointed out that, to Dante, anyone who corrupted or discredited the institutions that support society was doing something gravely wicked, and would surely be consigned to the lowest circle of hell, the 9th. (The 9th, as I recall, is for treachery, and it is where Satan lives…)
Granted, the image of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump dealing with Satan in that lowest circle gives me a “warm and fuzzy,” but I really don’t think Americans should defer remediation based upon belief in a just afterlife. We need to work on repairing the here and now.
When citizens cannot rely on the integrity of government officials, when they no longer expect those officials to enforce the rules against corporate and business malfeasance, when they see McConnell’s Senate confirming judges chosen in the belief they will be willing to corrupt the impartiality of the bench and tilt the scales of justice in the GOP’s favor–who should they trust?
Americans’ ability to trust each other depends upon the ability of our governing and social institutions to keep faith with the American values set out in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Those values include equal treatment and fair play, and especially fidelity to the rule of law–the insistence that no one is above the law and that the same rules should apply to everyone who is in the same circumstances (or as we lawyer types like to say, everyone who is “similarly situated.”)
Allowing the rich and connected to “buy” more favorable rules is a massive violation of those values, yet that is what millions of Americans see happening every day.
When governments and important social institutions all seem corrupt, trust evaporates, taking social and political stability with it. If the Biden Administration restores visible competence and integrity to government, it will be the beginning of a long and urgently needed process of Institutional repair.
And hopefully, a restoration of trust.