Why Don't We Trust Our Institutions?

Ron Fournier posted a terrific piece on Saturday explaining that the slowness and inefficiency with which our social institutions responded to the spreading Ebola virus scared him because they indicated that we couldn't trust those institutions. He noted our declining trust in all social institutions, including government. 

Fournier's piece got me to thinking about our lack of faith in social institutions, most especially government. What explains it? The answer, as I'll outline below, is a combination of historical factors over the last 50+ years (that may well be irreversible), and our country's natural philosophical orientation. 

First we must understand our national ideology and when we turn to the federal government to address societal ills. Dating back to the late 19th century Americans truly only turned to the federal government to solve problems that no other institution could handle.

The Federal government dramatically increased economic regulation in the early 20th century in response to robber barons and giant corporations that state governments proved unable to successfully regulate, thanks in part, to the decisions of the United States Supreme Court. 

According to the 1890 census, 9% of the nation’s families controlled 81% of the nation’s wealth. Indeed, the 1900 report of the U.S. Industrial Commission concluded that between 60 and 88% of the American people could be classified as poor or very poor. These conditions contributed to Teddy Roosevelt's trust busting efforts, the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, and other remedies. 

Subsequently, we saw major expansions of the federal government and federal power in response to the Depression, World War II, and the half century long Cold War.

Each time government grew and continued to grow so long as it succeeded and earned the trust of the American people. For example, the Great Society happened because people had tremendous faith in a government that had beaten the Depression, won a World War, and fought communism. When President Johnson asked for a chance to combat poverty, the public gave it to him. 

Yet, when government failed, it burst these periods of faith of government, and the country reverted back to its conservative equilibrium. Woodrow Wilson pitched World War I as a progressive war with idealistic goals. When Wilson's plan for a League of Nations failed (and his general conception of the war proved to be wrong), it resulted in retrenchment and the conservative policies of the 1920s. 

Similarly, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the failed War in Vietnam, the mixed track record of the Great Society, seemingly perpetual unrest in the streets, Watergate, Stagflation, and the ineffectual presidency of Jimmy Carter paved the way for another retrenchment. 

These events left Americans' faith in their government deeply shaken. No longer did Americans view government as the institution which had won World War II and defeated a Depression. Instead, government became an institution that lied to the American people and bumbled it's way through crises that it seemingly had no way to combat effectively. 

This historical template is the first piece of the explanatory puzzle that produced today's lack of trust in government. Absent both crises of great magnitude that cannot be handled by lower levels of government or private institutions, and government maintaining a successful track record, Americans are not inclined to have great faith in the federal government. 

The second piece of our current distrust stems from changes in the media. After Watergate, and the credibility gap that developed over Vietnam (not to mention smaller scandals), journalists changed how they viewed their role in the political system. Woodward and Bernstein became the new paradigm. 

Every young journalist wanted to be the next fabled investigate reporter (after all, who wouldn't want to be famous and get portrayed by suave, debonair movie stars?). 

This change, in combination with the sexual revolution of the 1960s through which the personal became political, turned the personal foibles of politicians into fair game. While John F Kennedy slept around in the 1960s without much of the public knowing, personal peccadilloes felled Gary Hart, Newt Gingrich and others. Bill Clinton lost a chance to totally restructure entitlement programs in a bipartisan manner as a result of sex scandals

With each successive scandal, the population became more and more jaded. How could Americans trust politicians when their own wives couldn't even trust them? 

The push for transparency and "clean" government also weakened the way government functioned. Many of our best politicians when it came to passing legislation that combatted societal ills were also, by today's standards, corrupt (see Johnson, Lyndon and Rostenkowski, Dan for two examples).

The kind of back room dealmaking that produced countless major pieces of legislation became substantially harder as the media reported on shady ties among the executive branch Congress, and lobbyists/industry. 

The rise of opposition research helped journalists to uncover this sort of dirt. 

The world of social media and blogs has only redoubled this effect. Even if journalists judge dirt on a politician not to meet the evidentiary threshold to be reported, nothing stops a blogger or a partisan from tweeting about a scandal or writing about it. Journalists have lost their gatekeeper function through which they could vet scandals for accuracy. 

Additionally, the return of partisan and ideological mass media over the last twenty-six years has increasingly allowed Americans to live in echo chambers. Thus, conservatives rarely, if ever, hear about government triumphs, and many Americans believe that the news they receive is slanted, and thus disregard it when it challenges their political assumptions (liberals hear about what government does well, but they can willfully ignore its weaknesses, instead of pushing for improvements/solutions). 

The rise of the conservative movement also reduced trust in government. Conservatives want to dramatically reduce the size of government. Thus, it behooves them to spotlight government foibles and incompetence, while ignoring government's successes (and government unquestionably has both failures and successes). Conservatives also benefit from gridlock, which renders government dysfunctional. Indeed, in the early 1990s, Newt Gingrich's strategy for gaining power in the House of Representatives involved destroying the institution's reputation. 

This isn't a criticism of conservatives per se. I leave the judgement to others. It merely acknowledges that conservatives understand how to win political and policy battles, and how to best advance their societal vision.

Liberals have been far less adept at messaging. They have yet to make a modern case that government can be a real force for positive good in society (For generations who did not live through the Depression and World War II, this thesis is far less evident than it was for their elders). Instead, liberals stick to tired messaging that sounds little different from arguments that liberals made in the 1960s. They also often take on the role of blind loyalists, refusing to understand that liberalism, first and foremost, requires competent government, because only competent government can address societal ills. 

I also think Americans' faith in government eroded in part because most Americans' only visibly interact with government in negative fashions. As Brian Balogh and Suzanne Mettler have adroitly pointed out, Americans favor government out of sight and the submerged state. Thus, we dole out government benefits through tax deductions, public-private partnerships, and programs that obscure the government's role in aiding Americans. The result is that many people have no clue how much they benefit from government (it is how people can bemoan the dangers of government run health care, while acidly adding that the government better not touch their Medicare). If you doubt this premise, ask yourself this question— how much less did you pay on your taxes last year because of various tax deductions, such as the mortgage interest deduction? 

By contrast, the negative side of government is quite visible to most Americans. The cop who pulls you over when you are driving no faster than the cars around you is a representative of government power. The 2 hour line at the DMV, the threatening letter from the IRS when you did nothing wrong, and the fine for renovating your bathroom without getting the requisite permits are also examples of negative interactions that Americans have with government every day. 

The visibility of the "costs" and the invisibility of the benefits provided by government distort our understanding of government's role in society, and make it far easier to view government skeptically. 

Finally, Americans have lost faith in government due to unrealistic expectations. Federal, state, and local governments employed 22 million people in 2012. Those 22 million people are human, and as such, imperfect. Like in every organization, public or private, some are quite good at their jobs, some are mediocre, some are poor, and some are corrupt.

Yet, even as we make plenty of mistakes in our own lives each day, we seem to take every scandal, every inefficiency, and every mistake made by government as a sign that government as a whole is hopelessly incompetent and unethical. We blame the President for things that he likely had nothing to do with and found out about at the same time as the rest of the country.

For those who think this a defense of President Obama, it's not. Just as the CEO of a major corporation cannot possibly be expected to know about each and every thing that every one of his/her employees is doing every day, we should not expect any president to know what each government agency is doing each day. Does that mean, that we shouldn't expect the president to clean up messes when he becomes aware of them? Of course not. Ultimately he bears responsibility to make sure that government functions efficiently and ethically. But to act as though the president dictates everything government does each day is silly. 

Government can and will make mistakes. Lots of them. It's why each successive administration, Democratic and Republican, has scandals and spectacular failures. Bert Lance, the Iran Hostage debacle, Carter's inability to combat stagflation, Reagan's soaring deficits, The Iran-Contra affair, the murder of Marines in Lebanon, the savings and loan bailout, the situation in Somalia, Monica Lewinsky, 9/11, the mishandling of Katrina, the bungled Iraq War, the financial crisis, Benghazi, ISIS, the IRS scandal, etc. I could go on and on. Even efficient, well run government will not be perfect.

The same, however, goes for private business. Just this week we found out that every one of us with a Chase account who logs in to their online portal had our personal information viewed/stolen by Russian hackers. 

I'm not sure we know enough to know whether private for-profit businesses, private non-profits, or government is/are most efficient (for example, in spite of heated debate, it appears that Medicare spends less on overhead than private insurers). 

All of these factors contribute to our current lack of faith in government and private institutions. Several of those government failures I listed above involved the failure to regulate industries that then failed spectacularly forcing government to spend billions to undo the mess. 

Overall, I am pessimistic that we will ever regain the kind of faith in our institutions that Americans once possessed. Why? The media institutions and mentality that contribute to our lack of trust in government show no signs of disappearing.

Additionally, in the most recent case in which a major crisis led Americans to place faith in the federal government (the financial crisis), President Obama did not use the moment to try to sell Americans on the good government could do. He did not take on the conservative public philosophy ushered in by Ronald Reagan. Nor did he try to make government benefits more visible. Instead, he passed several major pieces of legislation that submerged government benefits, infuriated conservatives, and failed to satisfy liberals (one could persuasively argue that Richard Nixon's proposed far more liberal domestic legislation, especially on healthcare and welfare than Obama). 

Further, the number of centrists and dealmakers on Capitol Hill declines by the day. The result is that we don't see the kinds of big deals that balanced budgets, restructured social programs, and generally gave Americans faith that their government was capable of achieving anything. 

Perhaps if the Affordable Care Act had produced best case scenario results, we might have had a change in Americans' attitudes towards government. Yet, the failure of the insurance exchange website, cancellation notices for plans that had inadequate benefits (and the administration's disingenuous explanation of the provision responsible for these notices), the misinformation that swirls about the ACA, and the impossibility of proving some of the benefits, (i.e. it's very hard to conclusively show when rates go up that they would have gone up more without the ACA), simply reinforced the view for many Americans that government is incompetent.