Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy.”
Here’s a depressing thought experiment: List all the public institutions, government agencies and media outlets in American politics. Now, narrow it down to all those that you believe would be considered unbiased and objective by large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans.
If anything is left on your list, it’s longer than mine.
Democracy requires trust. Without it, Democrats and Republicans won’t be able to agree on anything, not even basic facts. If that happens (and the process is already well underway), Americans will find far harder to debate, discuss and compromise. That’s bad enough on its own. But it also threatens the existence of American democracy.
In a survey released Wednesday, just 1 in 5 Americans say Washington can be trusted to do the right thing “always” or “most of the time.” Approval ratings show that Congress is consistently about as popular as cockroaches and traffic jams. There is no single organization or institution that a majority of Americans trust “a great deal.” It’s gotten so bad that fewer people trust the government now than they did after the Watergate scandal. The military is the only institution that commands “quite a lot of confidence” from most Americans. That is shockingly unhealthy for a civilian-led democracy.
Unfortunately, public distrust is rapidly worsening – and President Trump is encouraging the trend. That’s because he’s fueling distrust for political gain.
Of course, in writing a critical sentence about Trump, I will be dismissed by many Republican readers as a complete hack (thereby proving the point). But it’s nonetheless important to document elements of American democracy that used to be viewed as objective and nonpartisan, but are now considered highly partisan and deeply biased.
Many Trump supporters now view political polls as anti-Trump propaganda. (It’s worth pointing out that national polls were only off by 1 percent in 2016.) That’s largely because of Trump himself, who repeatedly touted CNN, ABC and NBC polls during the campaign when they showed him positively. Then, when his approval numbers plummeted, he tweeted: “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC NBC polls in the election.”
This is the Trump pattern. If it disagrees with his worldview, it’s fake. If it agrees with him, it’s real. He’s tweeted about “fake news” 41 times since December – even though many of the stories he criticized have since been corroborated and verified. Trump’s administration even claimed that the low unemployment statistics were “phony in the past” under President Barack Obama but are “very real now” under Trump.
The White House even attacked the credibility of the Congressional Budget Office, which has provided nonpartisan cost estimates for Democrats and Republicans since 1974. When policy wonks making fiscal assessments of proposed legislation become a partisan punching bag, we’ve got a problem.
Finally, Trump’s oft-repeated but easily debunked claim about millions of people voting illegally has threatened a bedrock of American democracy: trust in elections. As a result, only 11 percent of Trump voters were “very confident” that their vote would be counted accurately in 2016 and tens of millions falsely believe that millions of people voted illegally last year. (They didn’t.)
All told, Trump made 488 demonstrably false or misleading claims in the first 100 days – nearly five per day.
It’s a Catch-22. Trump supporters no longer trust polls, election results or mainstream news. Trump opponents have at least 488 examples of why they shouldn’t trust him – further undercutting their own faith in the government he leads.
To be fair, Trump isn’t the only one responsible for this problem. In 1964, 77 percent of Americans trusted the government always or most of the time. In 1965, 84 percent of Americans had a “very favorable” view of the FBI, with similarly robust public approval for the FBI director. Overwhelming majorities trusted the media.
Today, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans trusts the government. When FBI Director James B. Comey testified before the Senate on Wednesday, Democrats accused him of being a Republican stooge and Republicans accused him of being a Democrat stooge. (The public’s trust in him is equally dismal: Only 17 percent approved of Comey as of March.) And in late 2016, only a third of Americans said they trusted the media either “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” That’s the lowest level of trust in media since polling began.
There are many explanations for this creeping threat. Beyond politics, Americans simply trust each other less than they used to. We self-select into partisan echo chambers, staying far away from dissenting voices on social media and cable news. Rather than polite and reasoned conversations over coffee, we now attack each other anonymously online. (See the comments below.) Our politicians, too, are becoming more polarized – sometimes acting as a mirror to a divided society and sometimes further cleaving society with their own actions.
As we trust each other less, we’ll be less capable of compromise. The opposing sides will harden. We’ll become an increasingly broken democracy of endless bickering, gridlock and stagnation.
This is not where we should be. Even if we disagree on just about everything else, we should at least be able to agree that we don’t want that. Trust me.