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.”