Trust in Government

Trust in Authority Is Declining—Thank Goodness

When institutional authority declines, social gains follow. Even if there's also a rise in weird beliefs.

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Faith in authority has been declining for decades, and not just in the United States. The political scientist Ronald Inglehart, drawing on survey data from dozens of countries, has identified a "downward trend in trust in government" across the industrialized world. Nor is the state the only institution losing support: Inglehart found a broad, cross-cultural movement toward challenging "all kinds of authority, whether religious or secular" and toward exalting "individual autonomy in the pursuit of individual subjective well-being." This, he suggested, was a frequent, foreseeable development when a society modernizes. Having eroded traditional authority, modernity goes on to erode the dominant institutions of modernity itself.

This is not a linear, predictable process, and it inevitably has bizarre side effects. When large numbers of people are freed from old certainties, dozens if not hundreds of cults and other substitute certainties will emerge (and, in most cases, quickly dissolve). As G.K. Chesterton is supposed to have said (but didn't), "The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything." The careful skeptic will question not just authority but all the alternatives that hope to feed on that authority's carrion.

This is not in itself a good argument against the trend that Inglehart chronicled. The decay of authority has produced enormous social gains, even if it has also opened a space for ideas that are silly at best and lethal at worst. For example: While the revolt against medical authority has made more room for quack remedies and anti-vaccine cranks, it has also given us benefits ranging from the women's health movement to new standards of informed consent. We'd be better off if the revolt went even further, moving us toward a more consumer-driven, human-scale model of care—to borrow Inglehart's words, toward "individual autonomy in the pursuit of individual subjective well-being."

With all this in mind, I direct you to Damon Linker's latest column in The Week, headlined "The rise of the American conspiracy theory." Despite the title, the article isn't ultimately about conspiracy theories. (Those have thrived for centuries, and there is no strong evidence that they're on "the rise" relative to earlier eras.) He's writing about the collapse of faith in institutions. Here's an excerpt:

Fox

We know that greenhouse gases are producing destabilizing changes in the Earth's climate. And that human beings evolved from other species over millions of years. And that Barack Obama is a Christian. And that Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with the death of Vince Foster.

Large numbers of Americans deny those and many other assertions. Why? Because the trustworthiness of the authorities that make the claims has been under direct and continuous attack for the past several decades—and because the internet has given a voice to every kook who makes a contrary assertion. What we're left with is a chaos of competing claims, none of which has the authority to dispel the others as untrue.

That sounds like a recipe for relativism—and it is, but only (metaphorically speaking) for a moment, as a preparatory stage toward a new form of absolutism. Confronted by the destabilizing swirl of contradictory assertions, many people end up latching onto whichever source of information confirms the beliefs they held before opening their web browser. Instead of relativistic skepticism they're left with some of the most impenetrable dogmas ever affirmed.

What was once confined to UFO and Big Foot obsessives has now metastasized into the political mainstream and captured one of the nation's two major parties—with the encouragement of some of its most prominent members. Who's to say that Hillary Clinton isn't suffering from a debilitating illness? Just "go online" and you'll find all the evidence you need. What, you say she's denying it? Of course she is: That's exactly what we'd expect her to say!

Linker acknowledges that those "authorities that make the claims" also have a history of getting things wrong, though he doesn't dwell on the role this may have played in reducing the public's trust. (Expert claims about the Gulf of Tonkin and Saddam Hussein's weapons programs have surely led to more deaths than any cranky notions about creationism or Obama's religion.) But let's set that aside and look at what else is going on in this passage. While Linker speaks confidently here about what "many people" do, he doesn't offer any data on how many people do it. Yet surely that's important if you're trying to identify a trend. He's describing a form of confirmation bias, and confirmation bias is older than civilization. The internet offers new ways to fuel it, but it also offers new ways to undermine it; if it's easy now to build a bubble for yourself, it's also easier than ever before to consume news from different sources.

It is particularly odd for Linker to point to the Trump campaign here. (That's what he means when he says an "impenetrable dogma" has "captured one of the nation's two major parties.") Linker has been a journalist for a long time, so surely he knows that in every election each candidate's hardcore supporters can find ways to believe or disbelieve whatever rumors they want. If it isn't a Hillary Clinton health cover-up, it's a Michael Dukakis health cover-up; if it's not Michelle Obama denouncing "whitey," it's Kitty Dukakis burning the American flag. So it's hardly unusual that this year we're seeing such stories circulate again. What's unusual is the number of people who are rejecting their old partisan loyalties and the sense of certainty that those loyalties often inspire. Both the rise of Trump and the reaction against Trump suggest we're in a time when dogmas are not hardening so much as they're colliding, spinning in new directions, and breaking down. Hence all the talk of a party realignment; hence also the surprisingly high number of people thinking of voting for a third party. Basically, we're watching yet another revolt against entrenched institutions—in this case, the Republican Party and the old conservative movement. As always, the change sparks new interest in strange belief-systems, but that doesn't mean that interest will be the most important effect in the long term.

Granted: This time one of those strange alternatives—the Trump movement—might capture the White House. Probably won't, but might. If it does, one thing will be certain: President Trump will have to contend with the same distrust in authority that helped him rise to power.

NEXT: Record Number of Americans Don't Like Hillary Clinton, U.S. Opens Flight Routes to Havana, UFO in Yellowstone: P.M. Links

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  1. Inglehart found a broad, cross-cultural movement toward challenging “all kinds of authority, whether religious or secular” and toward exalting “individual autonomy in the pursuit of individual subjective well-being.”

    How does Inglehart explain the Democratic Party voter anomaly?

    1. You aren’t the boss of me, and you’re in bed with the Megacorps just as much as….free college and healthcare did you say? And some rich dude is going to pay for it? Very well, then, I guess I’m ready for Hillary.

      /Democrat voter

  2. I am prepared to swoop in and take your trust into my bosom, people. And once you put your faith in me, you can show your loyalty by toiling in my underground sugar caves.

    1. Kent Brockman hails your brave new world.

    2. PROMISE me that I can suck on your underground Sugar Tits, and An Ams All Yourn…. Show Me The Way to Yer Sugar Tits, send me a link to Yer Newsletter…

      1. You’ll have to settle for sugar walls.

        1. But… But, can we make the Sugarians PAY for those Sugar Walls?!??!

  3. When institutional authority declines, social gains follow. Even if there’s also a rise in weird beliefs.

    Like demanding more institutional authority because your trust in institutional authority is declining?

    1. G.K. Chesterton is supposed to have said (but didn’t), “The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.”

      Hmm, I thought it was CS Lewis who kind of said the same thing…

      1. The obvious replacement to God is GAWD…

        Scienfoology Song? GAWD = Government Almighty’s Wrath Delivers

        Government loves me, This I know,
        For the Government tells me so,
        Little ones to GAWD belong,
        We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        My Nannies tell me so!

        GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
        Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
        Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
        And gives me all that I might need!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        My Nannies tell me so!

        DEA, CIA, KGB,
        Our protectors, they will be,
        FBI, TSA, and FDA,
        With us, astride us, in every way!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        My Nannies tell me so!

  4. I think libertarians often overlook one upside of a Trump victory. You want people to be suspicious of government power? To put less faith in the Presidency and government in general? Elect Trump. The “majesty” of the office will be lessened. The media will suddenly be interested in anything that might be an abuse of power.

    On the other hand, with Hillary, the media will continue fawning and covering up, just as they do for any Democrat.

    1. If Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush, and W couldn’t derail the Imperial Presidency, a side-show carnival barker like Trump certainly won’t be able to.

      1. He may not completely derail it, but get a few wheels off at least. This is the major reason I’m big on Trump: His election (not him, but his election) changes the relationship of the people to their gov’t. It doesn’t really matter what he says or does in office, just the fact of his election after this campaign will be a revolution.

        1. Fuck yeah!

          It doesn’t really matter what he says or does in office, just the fact of his election after this campaign will be a revolution.

          100 times ^this^

  5. “‘We know that greenhouse gases are producing destabilizing changes in the Earth’s climate… that Barack Obama is a Christian… that Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with the death of Vince Foster.'” Also the comment related to theories about whether Hillary has a debilitating illness.

    We KNOW these things?!?! These are probably true. I assume these are all true, but it’s presumptuous to say we KNOW they are true. Under similar standards, we knew that the earth was the center of the universe. We knew FDR only had minor health issues and was getting better. We knew that eating a crapload of carbs and staying away from butter and salt was the key to good health. We knew there was nothing wrong with playing in piles of asbestos.

    1. Linker downplays the role of authorities being wrong in the loss of trust in authority. JW only briefly mentions it. But, isn’t that really the main reason for the fading trust in authority.

      The public has access to enough information to see that “authorities” are regularly, definitively, provably, spectacularly wrong.

      The “authorities” love to tell us things like Republicans stand for small government and Democrats stand up for the little people by fighting corporate interests. That’s always been ridiculous, but this election makes it even more undeniable.

  6. Large numbers of Americans deny those and many other assertions. Why? Because the trustworthiness of the authorities that make the claims has been under direct and continuous attack for the past several decades

    Maybe that has to do with those “authorities” proving themselves to be untrustworthy over and over again?

    I think it’s hilarious that leftist progtard douche-nozzles are now the people screeching about how no one trusts “the authorities” and bemoaning the lack of faith in government. They sound more like conservatives than conservatives ever did.

  7. Kitty Dukakis burning the American flag.

    Well, Kitty would’ve burned that flag but she drank all the accelerant!

  8. Interesting that among the things Linker says “we know,” greenhouse gasses destabilizing the climate is listed first. Of course, most here don’t agree.

    I’m reminded of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (founded in 1976 by Carl Sagan, nog others, with the intent to promote healthy skepticism in science) said this about supposed skeptics of climate science:

    “As scientific skeptics, we are well aware of political efforts to undermine climate science by those who deny reality but do not engage in scientific research or consider evidence that their deeply held opinions are wrong,” says the joint statement. “The most appropriate word to describe the behavior of those individuals is ‘denial.'”

    It’s why Linker lists climate change denial as one of those weird beliefs that arise. Like belief that Clinton murdered Foster. Just as weird.

  9. Hahaha! Wrong as usual. Even the warmists are starting to realize the models have been proven wrong. Data manipulation to cool the past and warm the present is needed and has been used to prop up the religion.

    http://realclimatescience.com/…..g-by-1000/

    “NOAA shows July temperatures increasing at 1.0F per century since 1895, with 2012 tied with 1936 as the hottest July.

    The actual raw temperature data they use to generate their graph, shows one tenth as much warming from 1895 to 2016, with 1901, 1936 and 1934 as the hottest years.

    NOAA creates this warming by massively cooling the past. They got rid of the hot 1901 by cooling it 2.13 degrees. The cooled 1936 by by 1.13 degrees and cooled 1934 by 1.11 degrees. That is what it took to elevate 2012 to the hottest July.”

    http://realclimatescience.com/……29-AM.png

    Note that the data have been massaged by adding a strong global warming curve.

    Torture the data enough and it will say anything.

  10. A nice side effect of all the medical quackery going on is that fewer people are demanding allopathic medical care.

    Those people are dying just as quickly as if they never sought care at all, but they have some sort of personal satisfaction in that they think they lived longer using the uninsured lies of snake-oil salesman instead of actually wasting a moment of my time arguing with me about some crap they read on the internet and dismissing the years I spent learning medicine.

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