This Is Important

I know I harp a lot on the negative consequences of today’s media and information environment, but it matters. When you consider the combined effects of the ability to choose your own reality and embarrassingly low levels of civic literacy (which I have been harping about for years), one of those effects is shockingly low levels of trust.

Americans don’t trust government, they don’t trust business, they don’t trust scientists and–as we are seeing–they don’t trust doctors.

And it matters.

A recent study  published by the Lancet and reported in the Washington Post linked those low levels of trust to America’s relatively poor response to COVID. The article began by reporting on the success of Vietnam in maintaining low levels of infection, despite the fact that, according to traditional tenets of preparedness, that country wouldn’t have been expected to perform as well as it did.

The research uncovered an unexpected reason.

“What Vietnam does have, that seems to potentially explain what has happened, is that they have very high trust in government — among the highest in the world,” said Bollyky, who is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

The peer-reviewed study was published Tuesday in the Lancet, a top medical journal, following 10 months of research by Bollyky, his colleague Erin Hulland, a scholar at the University of Washington, and a team of dozens.
The aim of the study was to answer a question that has been dubbed the “epidemiological mystery” of the pandemic: Why did the coronavirus hit some countries so much harder than others?

As the researchers explored that question, they realized that the traditional models for pandemic preparedness didn’t fit what they were seeing. Countries with better outcomes had high levels of trust in government and other citizens. Perceptions of government corruption correlated with worse outcomes.

Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, and an expert who was not involved in the study, said the research was evidence for what many already argue.

“Trust in government and strength of community engagement is critical to public health response,” Katz wrote in an email. “Experts from multiple disciplines have pointed to the importance of risk communication, community engagement and trust as critical to public health messages and policies being implemented. The findings in this paper emphasize just how important this is.”

Joshua Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said the research showed that “the battle of human being against pathogen was mediated by governments.”

“It’s really a Chicken Little situation,” Sharfstein added. “If people don’t believe what the government is saying, then people will be less likely to take the precautions that they need to take.”

It turns out that trust in government and in your fellow citizens is strongly associated with vaccination rates, among other things.

I’ve always disliked people who say “I told you so”–but in 2009, I wrote a book that told you so. It was titled Distrust, American Style and in it I argued that the social distrust that was already pervasive began with distrust of government. (As one chapter argued , “Fish Rot from the Head.”)

In that book, I marshaled data produced by numerous political scientists showing that over the preceding decades, Americans had become steadily less trusting of each other, and that as America’s diversity increases, our trust in our neighbors declines. My research convinced me that the growth of diversity isn’t the reason we trust less. (That old academic axiom that correlation isn’t causation is correct.) I was–and remain–convinced that the culprit is a loss of faith in our social and governing institutions– and that the remedy is to make them trustworthy once more, starting with government.

I argued for the importance of several electoral and systemic reforms : elimination of gerrymandering, ensuring that–if we can’t get rid of it– the electoral-college is reformed to reflect the results of the popular vote, and Improved government accountability. We need these and a number of other reforms so that Americans can be confident that constitutional checks and balances are honored and that government agencies are run by true experts, not political appointees.

In the years since that book was published (shameless plug: it’s still available on Amazon), trust has declined even more precipitously. Americans no longer trust experts or expertise, and a frightening number of them are actively working to dismantle the country–egged on by a far-right media taking advantage of our widespread ignorance of basic constitutional structures.

When you don’t understand how things are supposed to work, you don’t trust government–you trust Fox “News.”


  1. 40+ Years ago, Ronald Reagan preached distrust of our government. For example
    “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government IS the problem”
    and a laugh line from him was
    “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I am here to help you”. Very funny stuff for the R people.
    Dozens of other Republicans have preached that OUR government is the enemy. So this lack of trust issue belongs to the Republicans. Now what?

  2. Doubt that there are lessons in history where this has been turned around. Check out the numbers for young people…not much different.

  3. It’s that rugged individualism that Americans have taken way too far.

    And what Peggy said.

  4. AgingLGirl, Now I feel like I have to say something at least as profound as what patmcc said, which won’t be easy. There is no quick fix to a problem that has been carefully crafted for forty years, but when we have the full story of the last administration we should see that those lazy government workers saved our democratic republic. It was by the skin of our teeth and it is still in jeopardy, but it is still alive.

    I know it’s not perfect, but I challenge anyone to name a large organization that is.

  5. Remember what Thomas Hobbes said, back in the 17th Century. When people do not believe in collective action, they live lives “that are nasty, brutish, and short.”

  6. When governments conspires with corporations to screw working people, when governments facilitate giants like Walmart and Lowes forcing small businesses into bankruptcy, when the government engages in stupid wars and waste the treasure of the working class while the billionaires make tons of money, why should we trust government?

  7. Pretty sad, huh? Well, remember when G.H.W. Bush hired Karl Rove and Lee Atwater when he was chairman of the RNC? Their basic operating philosophy did NOT include governing. It was “win at all costs”. Throw in the over-inflated Newt Gingrich, the guru of inflammatory rhetoric and vicious attack lines and you have what we have.

    Ronald Reagan was just the dupe of these truly evil men. He was their puppet. He was Howdy Doody shaming Buffalo Everybody. So, understand that the Republican party has been trying to dismantle our government, our Constitution and our national trust for DECADES. The rise of fascism is almost complete. Donald Trump and corporate/banking America have almost got it all in their pockets. The SCOTUS is about to hand these bastards the keys to the kingdom, and the United States will fail as a democracy and become…something else.

    Voters remain somnolent. Democrats remain weak-kneed. Merrick Garland is being too careful. Hello! We’re almost out of time.

    I’m glad I’m old.

  8. People individually choose to trust and thus what to believe just as they choose their source of news and as adults what religion to belong to or not. If the choices they make lead to bad outcomes it is because of the education they got at school and at home. Sheila is right on target!

  9. I see 2 major issues that have contributed to the decline of trust in America and our government. Misinformation from AM talk radio and Fox playing a big roll.
    The other is the people we have elected to run our government, our elected officials are not the public servants or self sacrifice’s they have historically been.
    Greed, Power, I know better, What’s in it for me, Cut me in and I will vote for it, Give me enough money and I’m all yours, They have never volunteered, served in uniform, worked in the public sector, But they have this flag, gun and bible so that makes them a patriot, so vote for me not that filthy guy running against me, that lies, steels, abused women and children, hates churches, reportedly uses drugs, can’t keep a job, and has been seen at satanic meetings.
    And only I can fix things for you !

  10. Authoritarian types trust strong leaders, not systems. Until the Democrats can present themselves as such, they will lose. It’s amazing that they had Barack Obama, who after all overcame all the racism directed at him to win twice, but they still fail to promote candidates who can inspire followers. If you think things are bad now, just wait until the Republican Obama arrives. Trump was an absolutely horrible candidate and the Ds still handed him the presidency. The Republican Obama will be king.

  11. There is very little reason to trust most institutions in the US. They’ve all been corrupted from the top down. But, once you figure out how things operate and by whom, you realize it’s all a facade.

    Julian Assange told the truth and figured out a way to allow whistleblowers to share the facts with the world and look who hunted him down and tortured him for over a decade.

    The US told Russia and the world that we wouldn’t “move one inch to the East of Berlin.”

    We lied.

    We’ve been lying about Russia and China nonstop for decades. We’ve been lying about Central and South America for decades. We’ve been lying about how we treated immigrants, Native Americans, and African Americans for eons.

    Albert Einstein told us the uncomfortable truth in 1949. What amazes me is we are still fighting over politics…I mean, why do you think the WaPo or NYT is any more trustworthy than Fox News?

    Yet, if you ask folks who identify with one political party over another, they always say that the other party is worse at lying than their party.

    If they are lying, they are lying. Period.

  12. What Vernon said.

    Of course I didn’t live during the time of the dinosaurs As Vernon did, lol, but I remember what he was referring to here. Sorry brother Turner, Just playing but I did complete my Medalist series today. My wife asked why I have all of these books by Vernon Turner, I had to laugh, I said he’s a pretty good author! I’m back to reading about a book or two a week now. Thanks!

    The sad thing, It was a slow slog getting to this point , or at least a relatively slow slog. Unfortunately There it wasn’t any or hardly any blowback. When you leave trash laying out, it not only rots itself but it contaminates everything around it. And there you go! Not only does the fish rot from the head, Everything around it takes its odorous qualities.

    Let’s face it, society is Basically ruined right now. and, looking at the magnitude of the right, I believe it’s beyond Any sort of surgical extraction by Those who still have a brain left.

    History is cyclical like I’ve said before, part of the problem is that nobody really believes that or They think that The issues were much different during past Incarnations of the same troubling direction. So, People see The warning signs, but there’s a strong desire to want that wheel reinvented. Unfortunately it never works out that way. Because throughout history, people have thought the same thing about their previous generations and previous powers that collapsed because of the same issues.

    A particular German philosopher, George W F Hegel stated; “peoples and governments have never learned anything from history or acted upon principles to deducible from it.”

    AJ Toynbee, a historian that wrote the book “Civilization On Trial,”

    “In the writer’s opinion, The answer to this question of history is in the negative. There is nothing to prevent our Western civilization from following historical precedent, if it chooses, by committing social suicide. But we are not doomed to make history repeat itself, It is open to us, through our own efforts, to give history, in our case, some new unprecedented turn. What shall we do to be saved? In politics, establish a constitutional cooperative system of world government. In economics, find working compromises varying according to the practical requirements of different places and times, between free enterprise and socialism. And, concerning the life of the spirit, put the secular superstructure back into religious foundations. of the three tasks, the religious one is of course, and in the long run, most important.” 1948

    See? There has been much past recognition of what has currently reached the breaking point. We are more than likely way beyond any sort of repair of society. Humanity is actually pretty stupid and pretty cruel. And, it will be its undoing!

  13. In business, they say it this way. “What gets advertised, gets bought.”

    Fox advertises. Republicans buy. End of mystery.

  14. John Sorg,

    Thank you for being a fan. Please write one of your glowing reviews on Amazon. It all helps. I stopped writing non-fiction books about politics a few years ago because it was making me not sleep. Now, I write fiction and use my idealistic (somewhat) characters as platforms for doing the right things for our people and country.

    Today’s blog is very depressing in view of what continues to gnaw at our beloved nation. The really disappointing part is that it is ONLY the 25% of us who are causing 75% of the grief. As Todd goes spinning off into space with his negativity about the media (One wonders when he’ll do something about that.), the media continues to sell air time and papers; it’s almost like the country buying news is addicted to negativity. This is a scary parallel to 1930s Germany. Re-read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” sometime soon…while you still can. Chilling.

    Actually, John, I was born in Ohio just after the last glacier receded forming the Great Lakes. So, dinosaurs pre-date me, but not the wooly mammoths. LOL.

  15. Mr. “B” actor, Ronnie Raygun, owns a lot of responsibility for what has been an unravelling of the social fabric in the U.S. And, as Geraldine
    points out, the actions of our federal gov’t, since at least the Vietnam War days, ironically, have not helped the cause of trust.
    As noted in yesterday’s blog, and previously, the U.S.’s lack of civic smarts has helped the population to be moved in dangerous directions,
    culminating, IMHO, with the election of Trump, and the seating of right-wing dunderheads on SCOTUS. Apparently. these folks have dealt yet
    another blow to Democracy with their newest decision, announced yesterday.
    The reality of the court is toxic, and, again, IMHO, it is long past time to expand the court to include some justices that recognize the value of
    social interdependence, rather than the fraud of the lone cowboy with his rifle…the greedy lone cowboy with his rifle, thinking that Mr. Raygun
    made sense when he declared that the government was the enemy, and “You can have it all.”

  16. Choosing one’s own reality is not such a bad exercise if one is civically educated to make such choices, though invariably there will be those in search of power and money who will work to make sure that we are not civically educated since ignorance of the polity helps keep the status quo of wage and wealth inequality and political manipulation in place. Thus we see millions today who proclaim that their “freedom” not to be inoculated trumps (pun intended) the lives of both the inoculated and unnoculated. I think James Madison, quill in hand, would disagree.

    Somewhere along the line such killers have not been educated to the responsibilities side of the equation of rights and responsibilities inhering in our social contract, or if so, they have fallen prey to Fox Gnus and irresponsible politicians who have their own fish to fry, hence their attacks on school teachers, opponents as socialists, women’s reproductive health as a front for baby-killing, communist school boards etc., all evidence of their civic illiteracy.

    Conclusion: The culprit is lack of civic literacy; the rest is symptomatic. Senator McCarthy and Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump – what an unlikely combination of diverse personalities with the common goal of the destruction of our democracy in quest of their own selfish goals.

  17. NoDak,conversation with neighbor ,monday.hes a trumper,has the flag and brandon flag flyin in the wind. doesnt trust any politician. his arguments are continously about the private past lives of the liberals. he,ll throw in everyone to apease my opinion.theres never any recognition to his needs when the failures beyond his farm/ranch control he gets bailed out,its the first time i used the word welfare to him, in regard to his disater relief. his comeback, well trump sent me a check..i replied,oh,your paid for smile there.. seems as the time drags since trumps big lie,the message is personal attacks,and like todays subject,complete disregard to goverment..when i asked about who he would elect,to replace the present goverment,he didnt have a clue. seems he listens to others,thats the news room here in NoDak. this discourse set its foot solid when local radio station in Yankton,s.d. NAX and fargos FYR were bought up by investor owned the same time Sen.Tom Dashel DSD,and Sen Byron Dorgan DND were on the reelection schedual. seems these two stations played a big hand (this is prior social media freedoms) in saturating the ads with pro right wing disinformation. though SenDashel and SenDorgan were instramental in the farm bills that kept corp farming out,helped when natural disasters happend with low intrests or forgivable grants to,stay afloat. the farm credit services sector.etc. seems the very needs that were accomplished and kept the likes of mnuchin like profiteers from killing the family farms..the systematic spread of falsehoods and raging info fires have drowned out what these people have,and we,voted for. now were demanded by them to submit to lies and walls streets greed..seems that silver spoon is coming out his …

  18. While I despise the TrumPencians and their allies in the media and statehouses around the country, I don’t think we can blame this on them, or Karl Rove or Lee Atwater (as tempting as all that may be). I grew up the younger brother of a college anti-war protester (6’10” and about 300lbs…intimidating to college professors and administrators, campus security and National Guard alike), and he inspired me to join CARD and the War Resisters League… I used to have a broken rifle pin. And as I think about today’s environment and those old days (old, but not necessarily good) I recall sayings like “Never trust anyone over 30” and song lyrics like those of CSNY’s For What It’s Worth. No, this anti-leader, anti-government attitude isn’t new. It’s been with us much of our history; we just have the internet and cable TV to really spread it around now. In the immortal words of Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy and he is us…but the us is less well informed, less trusting of each other, and far more inclined to isolate into like-minded on-line communities and believe their own lies…

  19. OverIt, I have often thought about how much more damage could have been done by Trump if he had been smarter and had more of an agenda other feeding his own ego. I think back on the last 50 years of Republican presidents, and the last one I can member that might have wanted what was best for the whole country was George H W Bush. I don’t think the Republican party can produce a candidate that would have the charisma of Obama. They require a self serving ego. If they get a charismatic puppet, then they won’t have the brains to think for themselves (see George W Bush).

    I am not too worried that the Republican Messiah will show up soon.

  20. Vernon,

    It seems they’re trying to bring back the wooly mammoths. I’m sure they could use some help lol!

    I will, concerning amazon! I’m going attempt a Google review on your literary skills.

    I will definitely read the book you suggested.

    Folks tend to be overly critical about beliefs that are dissimilar to their own.

    People tend to talk at folks too much, no one wants to talk to anyone. We all have different ideas different opinions different levels of knowledge. No one is really the end all be all to intellect. All you can do is educate yourself and follow what you think the truth is based on evidence.

  21. “And, concerning the life of the spirit, put the secular superstructure back INTO religious foundations. of the three tasks, the religious one is of course, and in the long run, most important.” 1948”

    And, concerning the life of the spirit, put the secular superstructure back ONTO religious foundations. of the three tasks, the religious one is of course, and in the long run, most important.” 1948

    Was that a typing error?

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