where do you turn if you mistrust the government and the people?

If you mistrust the government but trust your fellow citizens, you may be drawn to political changes (such as referenda, campaign finance reform, or electoral reform) to increase the power of “the people,” collectively. That was the main trend of reform between 1890 and 1914. If you mistrust many of your fellow citizens but trust some version of the government, you may be convinced to expand the power of technocrats or charismatic politicians, as has happened in many countries, especially the most divided ones. But the clear trend in America for the last several decades has been growing distrust for both.

If one distrusts both the public and the government, a consistent response would be individualistic libertarianism: asking to be left alone to the greatest possible extent. (I distinguish this philosophy from communitarian libertariansm, which means devolving power to localities.)

Individualistic libertarianism has been a growth stock during the period depicted above, when–not coincidentally–people have also become less likely to work together with their neighbors. But without arguing its merits, I would note that most Americans don’t buy all the tenets of individualistic libertarianism. In particular, they are concerned about negative externalities (whether from smokestacks or from drug sales) and want to regulate other people’s behavior to prevent them. They are also at least somewhat concerned about economic equality.

So where will Americans turn if they want to regulate society but distrust both the government and their fellow citizens and are not working with their neighbors? That seems to me a great underlying issue of our time.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.