Janine R. Wedel:

Why so many dis­trust gov­ern­ment: It doesn’t work for them.

San Francisco Chronicle - - INSIGHT - By Janine R. Wedel

Pun­dits of­ten at­tribute Don­ald Trump’s suc­cess to right-wing “pop­ulism.” This con­clu­sion is dan­ger­ously mis­lead­ing. Trump’s rise is rooted firmly in his abil­ity to make an old-fash­ioned word — “rigged” — work in sur­pris­ingly fresh ways.

Trump cor­rectly di­ag­nosed a feel­ing among work­ing peo­ple that the sys­tem was rigged against them, and then lever­aged that against his op­po­nents in both par­ties.

As a so­cial an­thro­pol­o­gist who stud­ies both “in­flu­ence elites” and the work­ings of bu­reau­cracy, I can help ex­plain why this “rig­ging” res­onates with so many reg­u­lar peo­ple. I be­gan my ca­reer in 1980s Poland study­ing how com­mu­nist sys­tems worked. In the past decade or so, I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced a nag­ging sense of deja vu as Amer­i­cans per­ceive a widen­ing gap be­tween how they ex­pect the sys­tem to op­er­ate and how it re­ally does.

I’ve seen this most clearly among the Trump sup­port­ers I en­counter in ru­ral Kansas, where I grew up, and ru­ral up­state New York, where I’m a part­ner in a fam­ily busi­ness. They all say they are against the sys­tem be­cause it’s rigged against the lit­tle guy at the bot­tom, even if they have lit­tle idea what to re­place it with. They may not find Trump ap­peal­ing, but at least he’d “shake things up.”

The “sys­tem” goes well be­yond the gov­ern­ment. Whether it’s your bank, your doc­tor, pub­lic school, news sources, unions, or even your place of wor­ship, all have posted stag­ger­ing de­clines in con­fi­dence in re­cent decades. These in­sti­tu­tions also are fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent than they were at the time when pub­lic trust was first mea­sured. A bank of to­day is not the bank of the 1970s, when you could get a mort­gage by talk­ing to the lo­cal lend­ing of­fi­cer with whom you could meet face-to-face. He might not have met your needs, but at least he had the author­ity to take into ac­count your own cir­cum­stances and his­tory in his de­ci­sion. To­day, this all goes by al­go­rithm in some un­seen of­fice.

Ditto when I have a si­nus in­fec­tion and need to see a spe­cial­ist. I used to be able to call the doc­tor’s of­fice di­rectly, now I have to call a num­ber that routes me through an in­com­pre­hen­si­ble phone tree and con­nects me with peo­ple who have lit­tle author­ity. Sim­i­lar changes have pro­lif­er­ated through­out our lives — which ex­plains why United Air­lines ini­tially barely apol­o­gized when a pay­ing cus­tomer was dragged off a flight.

You don’t have to spend much time punch­ing through a phone menu to re­al­ize that no one, be­sides you, is in­cen­tivized to care if you get a mort­gage, heal your si­nus in­fec­tion, or make your flight to Louisville. And, while you know you’re in­ter­act­ing with ma­chines, the frus­tra­tion, im­per­son­al­ity and dis­af­fec­tion you feel feels like some­thing I have ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore: the daily dis­af­fec­tion that even­tu­ally led peo­ple un­der com­mu­nism to re­volt. Amer­i­cans have re­cently lost power and be­come dis­con­nected from com­mu­nity in ways that can’t en­tirely be ex­plained by money or in­equal­ity.

In my re­search, I’ve found that nearly ev­ery pol­icy venue af­fect­ing our lives — from for­eign pol­icy to health care to the econ­omy — has in­deed been rigged to vary­ing ex­tents by elites shap­ing de­ci­sions to fit their own self-in­ter­ested agen­das.

For in­stance, the bank­ing gi­ant Gold­man Sachs fa­vored some of its pow­er­ful clients against oth­ers (in­clud­ing pen­sion funds) in the no­to­ri­ous Aba­cus Deal of 2007. When the deal was dis­cov­ered only one lower-level ex­ec­u­tive was pun­ished and the com­pany paid a fine that paled along­side its prof­its. Mean­while, so many for­mer ex­ec­u­tives from the com­pany took po­si­tions in the fed­eral ad­min­is­tra­tions since the Bill Clin­ton era that the com­pany is jok­ingly called “Gov­ern­ment Sachs.”

The sense of per­va­sive rig­ging ex­plains the groundswell of dis­trust that brought Pres­i­dent Trump to power last fall. His con­stant ref­er­ences to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pri­vate email server and prob­lem­atic fam­ily foun­da­tion — rais­ing the idea that she didn’t just es­cape the rules, but in­vented them to serve her­self — res­onated with many vot­ers.

Ironically, in a mere 100-plus days, Trump has brought the very rig­ging he has railed against to a new level of bla­tancy: from Ivanka Trump us­ing her po­si­tion to pro­mote her fash­ion line to packing his Cab­i­net with bankers and bil­lion­aires with fi­nan­cial con­flicts — all while starv­ing parts of the bu­reau­cracy through un­filled po­si­tions and bud­get cuts.

In dis­man­tling and re­or­ga­niz­ing gov­er­nance, Trump is bor­row­ing from the com­mu­nist play­book: Power and per­son­al­ity fre­quently trump process, for­mal po­si­tion, bu­reau­cracy and elected bod­ies. He has tried to en­fee­ble pil­lars of democ­racy: civil lib­er­ties, a free press, an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary.

When your democ­racy doesn’t feel like a democ­racy, the sys­tem de­mands over­haul. Starv­ing it will only lead to more dis­trust. Pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions need re­mak­ing; they need to re­de­liver. Janine R. Wedel is a pro­fes­sor in the Schar School of Pol­icy and Gov­ern­ment at Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity and the au­thor of “Unac­count­able: How the Es­tab­lish­ment Cor­rupted Our Finances, Free­dom and Pol­i­tics and Cre­ated an Out­sider Class” (Pe­ga­sus Books, 2016). She wrote the com­men­tary for Zócalo Pub­lic Square. To com­ment, sub­mit your let­ter to the ed­i­tor at http://bit.ly/SFChron­i­clelet­ters.

An­drew Har­rer / Bloomberg

A demon­stra­tor wears an ef­figy with Pres­i­dent Trump’s like­ness with a sign ref­er­enc­ing his ties to Rus­sia at a protest out­side the White House this month.

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