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.”


Playing with Fire

Every once in a while, I read something that makes me want to pound my head against the nearest wall.

A few days ago, this was the “something.”

The article addressed the dogged determination with which Republicans in Congress have opposed any and every proposal coming out of the Obama White House–even, as we have seen, proposals that had originally been theirs.

That strategy was eventually articulated publicly by former Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

…There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters’ confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn.

I know this is an era of exceptionally strong partisanship. I also know that both parties routinely engage in behaviors that do not serve the common good.

But I also know–and there is ample research confirming—that trust in the enterprise of government is absolutely essential to the operation of that government. To deliberately undermine popular belief that government as an institution is both necessary and (in the main) beneficial is to intentionally destroy its ability to function.

Accountability is important. No one in her right mind would suggest that every government program is well-run (or even necessary), or that every government official is a wonderful person devoid of self-serving motives, or that we should turn a blind eye to ethical and legal transgressions. We need to identify and correct the very real problems that exist. But with all its imperfections, with all its opportunities for mischief, the American administrative state has served us well.

Making governance impossible in order to gain political advantage so that you can ultimately control  the institution you have neutered is rather obviously short-sighted.

If true, it is also–and I use the term advisedly–evil.


The Trust Conundrum

I was recently asked to participate in a panel exploring current levels of trust and distrust in government. Among other things, we were asked to consider what citizens might do to mitigate the growing cynicism about politics, and whether we thought the current media environment was contributing to widespread distrust of government at all levels.

These are questions worth pondering.

I think a great deal of distrust in government is a result of the deficit in civic literacy that I have written about previously. When citizens don’t understand constitutional constraints on the public sector, when they are unfamiliar with the most basic historical and philosophic roots of our particular approach to self-government, they are unable to evaluate the lawfulness of government activity. One result is that government action that should be entirely predictable looks arbitrary, while corruptions of the process are seen as “business as usual.” Normal checks and balances are decried as unnecessary red tape, and egregious abuses of legislative mechanisms like the filibuster are seen not as a misuse of power, but part of the ordinary, mysterious processes of the political system.

When citizens aren’t able to distinguish between use and misuse of the power of the state, it’s no wonder they believe all public policy is for sale.

The current chaos that is the media is even more consequential, because a healthy Fourth Estate is critical to democratic self-government.

Citizens can’t act on the basis of information they don’t have. The paradox of life in the age of the Internet is that there are more voices than ever before—theoretically, a good thing—but we’ve lost news that is collectively recognized as authoritative, which is proving to be a very bad thing. A babble of opinion, spin and outright fabrication has replaced what used to be called the “iron core”—reliable information that has been fact-checked and authenticated.

It is one thing to draw different conclusions from a reported set of facts; it is quite another to deny the existence of the facts themselves.

On the one hand, the Internet has empowered many more government watchdogs; on the other, it has facilitated the rise of innumerable conspiracy theorists, fringe groups, special interests and outright liars. The result is that someone who prefers to believe, say, that global climate change is a hoax or that President Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya can readily find sources that confirm those suspicions.

The days when everyone listened to—and trusted the veracity of—reporting by Walter Cronkite and his counterparts in the mainstream media are long gone. (Indeed, there is a persuasive argument to be made that there is no longer such a thing as “mainstream” media.) Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.  Today, thanks to incredibly shrinking newsrooms and proliferating propagandists, people are choosing their own facts, and increasingly living in alternate realities that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and prejudices. When thoughtful Americans aren’t sure what news they can trust, and ideologically rigid Americans—left and right—are living in information bubbles of their own choosing, the lack of constructive dialogue and institutional trust shouldn’t surprise us.

In a world that is changing as rapidly and dramatically as ours, the importance of real journalism—not “infotainment,” not talking heads, not bloggers, not columnists, not “he-said, she-said” stenographers, but actual fact-checked, verified news in context—becomes immeasurably more important.

Without a shared reality, we can’t build trust. Without accurate civics education and an authoritative journalism of verification, we can’t share a reality.