Los­ing their faith?

Amer­i­cans’ trust in their in­sti­tu­tions is fad­ing and un­likely to return

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Bill.bishop@dai­lyyon­der.com

The eas­i­est sell of Pres­i­dent Trump’s life is that a “cor­rupt” me­dia pro­duces “fake news.” Af­ter all, fewer than 2 in 10 Amer­i­cans have “a lot” of trust in news or­ga­ni­za­tions, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter has found, and we live in a “Ma­trix”-in­fused “con­spir­acy cul­ture,” ac­cord­ing to so­cial sci­en­tists, where one is thought to be im­pos­si­bly sim­ple to not un­der­stand that the world is ruled by col­lu­sion and machi­na­tion.

Trump has helped make trust a big deal for me­dia types, and they are now search­ing for ways to re­gain the faith of their read­ers. To com­bat the “fake news” charge, the New York Times, for ex­am­ple, is run­ning full-page ads and even bought a tele­vi­sion spot dur­ing the Os­cars declar­ing that “the truth is more im­por­tant now than ever.” For some, the prob­lem is that jour­nal­ists have al­lowed too much of their per­son­al­i­ties to creep into their work. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor David Shrib­man pre­scribes “less anal­y­sis and more re­port­ing, less personality and more facts.” For oth­ers, there’s a need to demon­strate that jour­nal­ists are not face­less elites but real peo­ple. Wash­ing­ton Post opin­ion writer Dana Milbank wrote of his news­room col­leagues: “They hail from all cor­ners of this coun­try, from farms and small towns, the chil­dren of im­mi­grants and fac­tory work­ers, preach­ers and teach­ers.” But even lo­cal pa­pers, the ones most closely con­nected to their read­ers, are strug­gling to de­fend their in­tegrity. One editor of a ru­ral Cal­i­for­nia pa­per ac­cepted an op-ed about the dan­ger of “fake news” in an at­tempt to in­still some faith among the anti-press crowd.

You can hear sim­i­larly fret­ful dis­cus­sions in dozens of other pro­fes­sions. The pres­i­dent has ma­ligned politi­cians, sci­en­tists, judges, teach­ers, la­bor union lead­ers and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials, among oth­ers. “Don­ald Trump’s most dam­ag­ing legacy may be a lower-trust Amer­ica,” the Econ­o­mist’s Lexington col­umn pre­dicted. Trust in Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions, how­ever, has been in de­cline for some time. Trump is merely feed­ing on that sen­ti­ment.

The lead­ers of once-pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tions are des­per­ate to res­ur­rect the faith of the peo­ple they serve. They act like they have mis­placed a credit card and must find the num­ber so that a re­place­ment can be or­dered and then FedEx-ed, if pos­si­ble overnight.

But that de­liv­ery truck is never com­ing. The de­cline in trust isn’t be­cause of what the press (or politi­cians or sci­en­tists) did or didn’t do. Amer­i­cans didn’t lose their trust be­cause of some par­tic­u­lar event or scan­dal. And trust can’t be re­gained with a new app or even an out­break of com­pe­tence. To be­lieve so is to mis­un­der­stand what was lost.

In 1964, 3 out of 4 Amer­i­cans trusted their gov­ern­ment to do the right thing most of the time. By 1976, that num­ber had dropped to 33 per­cent. It was a de­cline that po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Walter Dean Burn­ham de­scribed as “among the largest ever recorded in opin­ion sur­veys.”

Of course, that in­ter­ven­ing pe­riod brought a se­ries of tu­mul­tuous events: the ex­pan­sion of the war in Viet­nam, the Watts ri­ots of ’65, the civil rights move­ment and, then, as­sas­si­na­tions and Water­gate. Th­ese af­fairs have served as short­hand ex­pla­na­tions for our de­cline in trust. Af­ter all, who could trust an in­com­pe­tent gov­ern­ment that brought us scan­dal, ri­ots and an un­pop­u­lar war?

There are at least two prob­lems with this ex­pla­na­tion. First, the de­cline in trust in gov­ern­ment has been ac­com­pa­nied by fall­ing trust in nearly ev­ery in­sti­tu­tion. Why should a riot in Watts lead to dis­trust of or­ga­nized la­bor? Yes, the news of the day causes fluc­tu­a­tions in how Amer­i­cans feel about their in­sti­tu­tions. The Water­gate scan­dal led Amer­i­cans to lose faith in their gov­ern­ment. Con­versely, af­ter the coun­try was at­tacked on 9/11, trust in gov­ern­ment soared and peo­ple went back to church. Af­ter the im­pact of scan­dal and threat faded, how­ever, the long-term trends re­turned.

Sec­ond, the ero­sion hasn’t been con­fined to the United States. “De­clin­ing trust in gov­ern­ment has spread across al­most all ad­vanced in­dus­trial democ­ra­cies since the 1960s/1970s,” writes po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Rus­sell Dal­ton. “Re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal his­tory, elec­toral sys­tem, or style of gov­ern­ment, most con­tem­po­rary publics are less trust­ful of gov­ern­ment than they were in the era of their grand­par­ents.”

We haven’t sim­ply changed our at­ti­tudes. We’ve voted with our feet, walk­ing away from the in­sti­tu­tions we sup­ported for gen­er­a­tions.

For in­stance, historian Martin Marty de­scribes a “seis­mic shift” in reli­gion. “From the birth of the re­pub­lic un­til around 1965, as is well known, the churches now called main­line Protes­tant tended to grow with ev­ery cen­sus or sur­vey,” Marty wrote. And then, the pews started to empty. The six largest Protes­tant de­nom­i­na­tions to­gether lost 5.6 mil­lion mem­bers — a fifth to a third of their mem­ber­ship — be­tween 1965 and 1990.

And civic en­gage­ment has fallen. Har­vard’s Robert Put­nam has counted the drop in mem­bers of the Lions, the League of Women Vot­ers and, fa­mously, bowl­ing leagues be­gin­ning in the mid-’60s. The de­cline of th­ese as­so­ci­a­tions brought about a de­crease in con­sis­tent so­cial con­nec­tions. So­ci­ety be­gan to fray.

The changes that seemed to erupt sud­denly in the early 1960s ac­tu­ally be­gan long be­fore and moved slowly at first, as the globe shrank and so­ci­eties mod­ern­ized. As far back as the 1600s, trav­el­ers con­fronted by new cul­tures and novel deities be­gan to ques­tion their own so­ci­eties’ rules and in­sti­tu­tions. “Not a tra­di­tion which es­capes chal­lenge, not an idea, how­ever fa­mil­iar, which is not as­sailed; not an au­thor­ity that is al­lowed to stand,” historian Paul Haz­ard wrote. “In­sti­tu­tions of ev­ery kind are de­mol­ished, and nega­tion is the or­der of the day.” This was the En­light­en­ment, a turn­ing away from tra­di­tion and an anoint­ing of rea­son, sci­en­tific in­quiry and in­di­vid­u­al­ism.

Ris­ing in­comes and the wel­fare state brought En­light­en­ment in­di­vid­u­al­ity to the peo­ple. Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Ron In­gle­hart pro­posed in the 1970s that as so­ci­eties grow wealth­ier and less con­cerned about ba­sic sur­vival, we should ex­pect a shift from com­mu­nal to in­di­vid­ual val­ues: Peo­ple ex­press them­selves more and trust au­thor­i­ties less.

Ev­ery­thing about mod­ern life works against com­mu­nity and trust. Glob­al­iza­tion and ur­ban­iza­tion put peo­ple in touch with the dif­fer­ent and the novel. Our econ­omy re­wards ini­tia­tive over con­form­ity, so that the weight of con­ven­tion and tra­di­tion doesn’t squelch the lat­est gizmo from com­ing to the at­ten­tion of the next Bill Gates. Whereas par­ents in the 1920s said it was most im­por­tant for their chil­dren to be obe­di­ent, that qual­ity has de­clined in im­por­tance, re­placed by a de­sire for in­de­pen­dence and au­ton­omy. Wide­spread ed­u­ca­tion gives peo­ple the tools to make up their own minds. And tech­nol­ogy of­fers ev­ery­one the chance to be one’s own re­porter, broad­caster and com­men­ta­tor.

We have be­come, in Pol­ish so­ci­ol­o­gist Zyg­munt Bau­man’s de­scrip­tion, “artists of our own lives,” ig­nor­ing au­thor­i­ties and boot­ing tra­di­tions while turn­ing power over to the self. The shift in out­look has been all-en­com­pass­ing. It has changed the pur­pose of mar­riage (once a prac­ti­cal ar­range­ment, now a means of per­sonal ful­fill­ment). It has al­tered the re­la­tion­ship be­tween cit­i­zens and the state (an all-vol­un­teer fight­ing force re­plac­ing the mil­i­tary draft). It has trans­formed the un­der­stand­ing of art (crafts­man­ship and as­sess­ment are out; free-range cre­ativ­ity and self-pro­mo­tion are in). It has even in­verted the or­ders of hu­man­ity and di­vin­ity (in­stead of obey­ing a god, now we choose one).

Peo­ple en­joy their free­doms. There’s no clam­or­ing for a return to gray flan­nel suits and def­er­en­tial housewives. Con­stant so­cial re­tool­ing and choice come with costs, how­ever. With­out the au­thor­ity and guid­ance of in­sti­tu­tions to help or­der their lives, many peo­ple feel over­whelmed and adrift. “De­pres­sion is truly our mod­ern ill­ness,” writes French so­ci­ol­o­gist Alain Ehren­berg, with rates 20 to 30 times what they were just two gen­er­a­tions ago.

Sus­tained col­lec­tive ac­tion has also be­come more dif­fi­cult. In­sti­tu­tions are turn­ing to be­hav­ioral “nudges,” hop­ing to move an in­creas­ingly sus­pi­cious pub­lic to do what once could be ac­com­plished by com­mand or law. As groups based on tra­di­tion and con­sis­tent as­so­ci­a­tion dwin­dle, they are be­ing re­placed by “event com­mu­ni­ties,” tem­po­rary gath­er­ings that come and go with­out long-term com­mit­ment (think Burn­ing Man). The protests spawned by Trump’s elec­tion are more about pas­sion than or­ga­ni­za­tion and fo­cus. To­day’s demon­stra­tions are some­times com­pared to civil-rights-era marches, but they have more in com­mon with L.A.’s Sun­set Strip ri­ots of 1966, when more than 1,000 young peo­ple gath­ered to ob­ject to a 10 p.m. cur­few. “There’s some­thing hap­pen­ing here,” goes the Buf­falo Spring­field song “For What It’s Worth,” com­mem­o­rat­ing the ri­ots. “What it is ain’t ex­actly clear.” In our new pol­i­tics, ex­pres­sion is a pur­pose it­self.

A po­lar­ized and dis­trust­ful elec­torate may stymie the na­tional gov­ern­ment, but lo­cally most com­mu­ni­ties are either over­whelm­ingly Repub­li­can or Demo­cratic. In 2016, 8 out of 10 U.S. coun­ties gave either Trump or Hil­lary Clin­ton a land­slide vic­tory. In th­ese in­creas­ingly ho­moge­nous com­mu­ni­ties, no­body need bother about com­pro­mise and the trust it re­quires. From anti-abor­tion mea­sures to laws gov­ern­ing fac­tory farm­ing, the pol­icy ac­tion is tak­ing place where ma­jori­ties can do what they want with­out deal­ing with “those peo­ple” who live the next state over or a few miles down the road. At last count, 1 in 4 Amer­i­cans sup­ports the idea of their state se­ced­ing from the union.

So­lu­tions and ac­tion shrink to the size of the in­di­vid­ual. In­creas­ing num­bers of New York state par­ents have been hold­ing their chil­dren out of end-of-year school tests in a kind of DIY ed­u­ca­tion re­form. In some Los An­ge­les schools, so many par­ents opt out of the vac­ci­na­tion regime that in­oc­u­la­tion rates are on a par with South Su­dan’s as peo­ple make their own sci­en­tific judg­ments. The “we medicine” of com­mu­nity health, writes Donna Dick­en­son, is re­placed by the “me medicine” of in­di­vid­ual ge­netic test­ing, tai­lored drug regimes and all man­ner of per­sonal “en­hance­ment” tech­nolo­gies. And where once an­titrust laws were used to break up mo­nop­o­lies in food mar­kets, Michael Pol­lan con­cludes that to­day, we must “vote with our fork.”

Th­ese are all penny-in-a-burned-out-fuse so­lu­tions that don’t touch the big is­sues, such as eco­nomic in­equal­ity and cli­mate change. They also avoid the ques­tion that now de­mands an an­swer: How does an in­creas­ingly di­verse so­ci­ety gov­ern it­self demo­crat­i­cally?

Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists tell us that democ­ra­cies re­quire a lit­tle faith. To en­gage with oth­ers, you have to be­lieve that if you lose a con­test or a de­bate, the win­ner will treat you equitably; that if the other side wins, it will act within the law and not send its op­po­nents off to jail. You have to as­sume that in­sti­tu­tions will be fair and that lead­ers will act in the coun­try’s best in­ter­est.

“Aren’t you con­cerned, Sir,” CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Trump at last month’s news con­fer­ence, “that you are un­der­min­ing the peo­ple’s faith in the First Amend­ment, free­dom of the press, the press in [this] coun­try, when you call sto­ries you don’t like fake news?”

Trump re­sponded: “The pub­lic doesn’t be­lieve you peo­ple any­more. Now maybe I had some­thing to do with that. I don’t know. But they don’t be­lieve you. If you were straight and re­ally told it like it is . . . I would be your big­gest booster.”

The pres­i­dent is right that they don’t be­lieve. But he’s wrong to take credit for it — and wrong to sug­gest that there’s much that can be done. Bill Bishop is co-au­thor, with Robert Cush­ing, of “The Big Sort: Why the Clus­ter­ing of Like-Minded Amer­ica is Tear­ing Us Apart.” He lives in La Grange, Texas.



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