it’s no accident that people distrust institutions

Bill Bishop (who is a terrific reporter and thinker) wrote a Washington Post piece on March 3 entitled “Americans have lost faith in institutions. That’s not because of Trump or ‘fake news.’” The article is illustrated with a bank of charts showing declining trust in almost all institutions. Bishop’s explanation throughout is cultural and attitudinal:

The leaders of once-powerful institutions are desperate to resurrect the faith of the people they serve. They act like they have misplaced a credit card and must find the number so that a replacement can be ordered and then FedEx-ed, if possible overnight.

But that delivery truck is never coming. …

We haven’t simply changed our attitudes. We’ve voted with our feet, walking away from the institutions we supported for generations. …

We have become, in Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s description, “artists of our own lives,” ignoring authorities and booting traditions while turning power over to the self. The shift in outlook has been all-encompassing. …

People enjoy their freedoms. There’s no clamoring for a return to gray flannel suits and deferential housewives. Constant social retooling and choice come with costs, however. Without the authority and guidance of institutions to help order their lives, many people feel overwhelmed and adrift.

My view is different. I think that when things are going well, institutions offer attractive deals to citizens that they would be very happy to accept today. For instance, if unionized manufacturing jobs paid decent wages, people would like unions. If local government agencies had enough resources to provide consistently decent services, people would like government. If political parties were driven by volunteers (instead of swamped by money that flows to for-profit consultants who work for entrepreneurial candidates), people would engage with parties. And if a metropolitan daily newspaper offered the best available way to get news, sports, classifieds, and comics, people would subscribe, the subscription money would pay for journalists, and readers would trust the news industry.

But there are reasons that these institutions are not prospering. They all have competitors or outright enemies. Unions, for example, did not decline because we became “artists of our own lives.” Industries that had been unionized lost jobs to automation and outsourcing, and states passed laws that frustrate organizing. As they used to say on the left, it’s no accident, comrade, that unions have lost support.

An attitudinal explanation puts all the emphasis on people’s preferences or values. I’d introduce power into the narrative and explain people’s low trust as a reflection of objectively weak institutions that, in turn, were weakened by their rivals and enemies. The whole story is no doubt complex, with reciprocal causation, vicious cycles, and elements of cultural change; but intentional efforts to dismantle institutions must be part of the diagnosis.

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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.