In his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father smarty pants and winner of the 1796 International Navel Gazing Contest, famously pondered the nature of trust and government. The underlying philosophical conundrum he articulated succinctly: “I wouldn’t trust half the wingnuts in this burg to govern a third-grade spelling bee, so why the heck should anybody trust you suckers to run a government?” Okay, I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the basic point stands: Why should we trust government?
The short answer from much of the contemporary citizenry is that we shouldn’t. And, given the current crop of chiselers and poppycock peddlers running things, you can hardly blame them. And that’s fine. Generally speaking, a chary and skeptical electorate is more likely to keep a government honest, or at least keep its knavery to a tolerable minimum.
At some point, though, levels of distrust and suspicion becomes so high they undermine legitimacy, becoming corrosive not just to competent governance but to social cohesion. That tipping point is getting uncomfortably close. Right now we don’t trust much at all. Not government, not the media, not schools or scientists and experts, and, increasingly, not each other. We only seem to trust that which confirms what we want to believe, and if that’s contradicted by fact, truth and the incontrovertible ocular evidence of our own observation, screw it, we’ll place our faith in alternative facts. How did things get so bad that even reality can’t be trusted?
Some of it was premeditated political strategy, mostly (though far from exclusively) pursued by right-leaning types who spent decades being ticked off about never getting the chance to fully run things. Ronald Reagan led the charge, though being Reagan, he did it with a cheery good spiritedness. He dissed the government with a twinkle in his eye: “The most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” Newt Gingrich’s bomb throwers picked up and amplified these general themes, as did the neo-cons and Tea Party pique posse. For sure, there’s a principled argument for limited government (I’m partial to it myself), but somewhere along the line a bunch of this crowd got their angry levels jacked up to eleven, stampeded off of Bill Buckley’s ranch of reasonableness and thundered up the trail to kooky town. The Gipper’s one line gigglers morphed into a sustained assault on the credibility not just of government, but on a broad swath of social institutions. A good deal of this involved liberally sprinkling splenetic bunkum over pretty trivial or even wholly imagined misdemeanors in hopes it would transmute them into some sort of Nazi-league villainy. The basic idea seemed to be if we can convince everyone that the government, the media, and anyone who knows anything who disagrees with us is either venal and/or deceitful, maybe they’ll put us in charge.
The end result is these days if the government does something you disagree with it’s not because that’s just the half-a-loaf nature of representative democracy. Nope, it means there’s some dark conspiracy at work. It’s because judges are partisan hacks, because Congress is in the pocket of special interests, because the media is biased, because scientists are using their Bunsen burners to cook numbers, because the poll numbers are faked, because illegal immigrants are swanning around voting in their millions while a shadowy transgender mafia plots invasions of public restrooms. And we know this because Rush told us on the noon-time rant, because we read it on aluminumfoilhats.com and, the clincher, we caught that irrefutable internet meme Uncle Fruitcake posted on our Facebook wall.
Okay, so most people would agree as a nation we’re coming down with a bad case of melodrama. But does any of it really amount to even the teensiest existential threat to the republic? Well, some of this wack-a-loonery probably would not have surprised or alarmed folks like James Madison or Alexander Hamilton. For the most part, they assumed the average citizen was a sucker for the flim-flammery of political opportunists. The basically saw the entire electorate as rabble on a hair-trigger rouse. This is why they put their faith not in people, but in institutions. Which is exactly why the current state of politics would give pretty much the entire delegation of the Constitutional convention a severe case of the fantods.
The institutions that sustain our civic life—those that make up the government, electoral systems, the media, our repositories of science and expertise—are not pre-ordained and come with no guarantee of permanence. Indeed, they are largely artificial creations, they exist because of broadly accepted rules and norms. If those rules and norms lack trust and credibility, the institutions start to wobble and sooner or later we’re a Stephen Miller fib-fogged smug-storm away from a pretty serious crash.
This is especially the case when those placing the demolition rhetoric come from personages such as certain current presidents and Congressional caucuses I could mention. If it’s the ill-tempered crackbrains and the alt-right drivel swimmers who are hallucinating about black helicopters hauling off ballot boxes and trilling about the Secret Protocols of the Elders of Obama, that’s one thing. That adds a bit of spice to the republic. It’s another thing entirely when this sort of dystopian flapdoodle is being fire hosed out of the White House, both chambers of Congress, state houses, governor’s mansions, cable news operations, and sundry think tanks which are considerably more tank than think. That sort of stuff doesn’t bounce of the institutional walls, it starts to scour away at the foundations.
Can those institutions take it? Dunno, but I dang sure hope so. Given a modicum of space to operate as intended, those institutions constitute a pretty amazing self-correcting system. The big danger is we won’t let them work as designed. If we ignore all evidence and abandon faith in the idea that we have free and fair elections, that elected officials serve at the pleasure of their constituents, that the mainstream media does a reasonable job of keeping us informed, that eggheads who devote their adult lives to scientific investigation might actually know more about their subject of study than anyone else, if we give up on the rules and norms and processes that have evolved with and piloted the system from the get go, well, we’re sunk.
Ultimately, whether these institutions are allowed to work is up to us. Jefferson saw that. After raising the issue of trust in government, he said the following: “let us then, with courage and confidence, pursue our own federal and republican principles; our attachment to union and representative government.” I’m pretty sure what the windy old fart meant was don’t confuse the meal you ordered with the chef who prepared it. If you are fed up with your pedestrian diet, its small portions and absence of satisfying zest, and you decide to shake things up by ordering a croissant au merde because it sounds like an exciting burst of flavor, you shouldn’t be too shocked if you end up with a crap sandwich on your plate. That’s no reason to drag the chef into the alley and debone him—he’s just giving you what you asked for. Maybe next time you could just order old fashioned meat and veg. Sometimes sticking with the norm simply works best. Trust me.