Hit & Run

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.