This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on September 19, 2017.
History suggests that, when citizens come to deeply distrust their country’s institutions, the cancer of political degeneration may be taking hold. In America, cynicism appears to have metastasized to such an extent that it is now afflicting high schools. At least that’s the conclusion suggested by Jessica Contrera’s recent Washington Post piece.
Contrera reports that, in the past, high school teachers “feared teenagers would fall for everything they read online, [whereas] now teachers are increasingly concerned that their students will grow up not believing anything they read—or worse, believing the difference between what’s real and what’s fake is a matter of choice.”
Having lived in both Chicago, Illinois, and northern New Jersey—where cynicism has long passed for political prudence—I wondered whether this development was truly new. But then I reviewed the national polling on Americans’ attitudes.
Gallup has been surveying Americans’ “confidence in institutions” since 1973, and a number of the changes in attitudes over this period are striking. Regarding the media, those with very little or no confidence in newspapers more than doubled, from 18 percent in 1973 to 37 percent today. News on the internet received very little or no confidence from 25 percent of respondents in 1999, the first year Gallup polled on this question; today, public distrust of it stands at 47 percent. Television news also has taken a hit, with 44 percent signaling little or no confidence in it today, whereas 18 percent said such in 1993.
Congress fares no better: In 1973, 14 percent of Americans said they had “very little” or “no confidence” in Congress. In 2017, these two groups more than tripled to 47 percent. The presidency fares no better, with 16 percent of 1973 respondents showing very little or no confidence. Today, 47 percent distrust the institution of the presidency.
Public schools also have declined in the public’s eyes, with distrust growing from 11 percent in 1973, to 28 percent today. Perhaps hardest hit has been trust in healthcare. In 1975, only four percent indicated very little or no confidence in what the Gallup question calls, “the medical system.” Today, public distrust in healthcare has increased six-fold, to 27 percent.
As disturbing as these numbers are, to these declining entities we can add others: The NFLand ESPN have experienced significant drops in viewers recently. Also losing clientele are at least three hyper-politicized universities: the University of Missouri-Columbia (Mizzou), Evergreen State College, and Oberlin College. And political conservatives increasingly distrust higher education.
Are we seeing a massive, nationwide “turning inward”? The effect of growing distrust on a society was the focus of Francis Fukuyama’s book, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. He cautions that declining trust raises the price of doing economic business, due to the increased expenses required to replace lost confidence with verification protocols. This weakening of civil society could also, he warns, yield an increase in power grabs by the judiciary and the executive branch, threatening individual liberty.
But while growing distrust may be a novel phenomenon, the turning in on itself of the American soul has antecedents that were identified nearly two centuries ago by Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America, he identifies what he terms “individualism,” or self-absorption, as a key characteristic of modern democracy, “which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends. . . . Each man is thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”
Such separatism, Tocqueville notes, is also characteristic of despotic government: “Despotism, by its very nature suspicious, sees the isolation of men as the best guarantee of its own permanence. So it usually does all it can to isolate them. . . . A despot will forgive his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love one another. He does not ask them to help him guide the state; it is enough if they do not claim to manage it themselves.”
The crisis Tocqueville foresaw results from the fact that modern democracy “puts men side by side without a common link to hold them firm.” Meanwhile, “despotism raises barriers to keep them apart.” Hence, while despotism is “dangerous at all times,” it is “particularly to be feared” in democratic times.
Tocqueville’s solution to democracy’s dilemma is “freedom,” by which he means, primarily, political participation. “Citizens who are bound to take part in public affairs must turn from the private interests and occasionally take a look at something other than themselves.” This is why he valued both federalism and, more fundamentally, “local liberties.” After all, only a relative few can serve in the federal government, even as burgeoning as it has become today. If, as Tocqueville believed, political participation is indispensable to drawing us out of self-absorption, then we who are outside the Beltway require significant projects on which to collaborate with our fellow citizens.
This is an underappreciated benefit of federalism—or at least it was when we had federalism, which, over roughly the past century, has largely been pulled to pieces by the Supreme Court and executive branchpower grabs.
Tocqueville feared that, without citizen political participation, the vice of self-absorption would so consume our souls that we would come to trade our liberty for the promise of greater security. Ben Franklin shared Tocqueville’s prognosis. For Franklin, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Tocqueville goes further on the toxic political, moral, and psychological effects of this trade and, in so doing, paints a picture of daily life in the modern administrative state: Through excessive bureaucratization, “the sovereign power . . . covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd. . . . [F]inally, it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
To “timid and industrious,” we can add distrustful, isolated, and thus lonely—hardly the traits of which a robust, self-governing citizenry is made. They are a formula for powerlessness and the resentment it spawns.
Where will this state of soul lead us? Having reviewed Tocqueville’s answer, let us consider another, which comes from Hannah Arendt’s classic, On Violence: ". . . [T]he greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, or the power to act; for the rule of Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant."
If Tocqueville and Arendt’s insights are sound, we have a great deal to fear from Americans’ rising distrust, as well from their feeling of powerlessness, on which distrust and separatism feed. Finally, we have reason to fear the violence that can seem the only alternative to those suffering this state of soul.