The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the post-truth political era might be around for a while

The economy is getting better. Americans' faith in institutions, not so much.

A boat decorated with flags and banners from the Fishing for Leave group campaigning for a vote for Britain to leave the European Union in a referendum vote glides under Westminster Bridge toward the British Houses of Parliament as part of a “Brexit flotilla” on the river Thames in London on June 15. (Niklas Halle’n/Agence France-Presse)

To get a sense of the way in which the Brexit referendum mirrors the “post-truth” politics of the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, consider these two bits of information. The first is from Foreign Policy’s Robert Colvile:

In a recent debate on the EU, Faisal Islam of Sky News challenged Michael Gove, co-chair of the Leave campaign, to name a single independent economic authority who thought Brexit was a good idea.
Instead of answering the question, Gove — an astonishingly cultured and erudite man who can range in a single speech from Pericles to Gladstone to “the unfulfilled yearning of the Tristan chord” in Wagner — made a virtue of ignorance. “I’m glad these organizations aren’t on my side,” he said. “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” All these know-it-alls did, he insisted, was say “that they know what is best.” Gove, by contrast, placed his “faith in the British people.”
You can see the same mentality on social media, where Gove’s acolytes positively rejoice in the invincibility of their ignorance.

Lest the good readers of Spoiler Alerts think that Colvile is needlessly insulting the supporters of the Leave campaign, let’s turn to that second bit of information:

The growing distrust of authoritative experts is hardly unique to the United Kingdom. Edelman produces an annual trust barometer across a wide array of countries about people’s attitudes toward government, business, the media, and non-governmental organizations. Its 2015 survey revealed that “the number of countries with trusted institutions has fallen to an all-time low among the informed public.”

WATCH: How Donald Trump spreads unproven theories

This certainly resonates within the United States. The erosion of trust in authority and expertise is a decades-long phenomenon that has vexed U.S. observers on both the left and the right. This week, Gallup came out with its own updated survey about American trust in institutions. And Gallup provides an additional piece of information that is mildly terrifying.

The results contain bad news and worse news. The bad news is that American distrust of institutions has persisted for the past decade. Below is a chart showing the average trust levels Americans have toward 14 institutions, which include government and non-governmental structures:

When you disaggregate it by institution, Americans basically distrust every significant organization beyond the military (this chart is from last year but the numbers are pretty unchanged for 2016):

Now, loyal readers of Spoiler Alerts are probably aware of these facts, as I’ve written previously about the erosion of trust in institutions, authority and expertise. Gallup, however, has an additional observation that is rather disturbing, which leads us to the worse news. It’s contained in this chart:

Political Science 101 says that as the economy improves, people place more trust in their institutions. It is therefore understandable that after the 2008 financial crisis, trust would plummet. But as the chart above shows, public attitudes about job prospects have now recovered to pre-2008 levels. Satisfaction with life in the United States remains pretty low, but it has recovered to pre-2008 levels. And yet … well, I’ll let Gallup’s Jim Norman do the summing up:

Even as Americans regain confidence in the economy and are no longer in the depths of dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the nation, they remain reluctant to put much faith in these institutions at the core of American society.
Each institution has its own specific probable causes for this situation. But the loss of faith in so many at one time, while Americans are becoming more positive in other ways, suggests there are reasons that reach beyond any individual institution. The task of identifying and dealing with those reasons in a way that rebuilds confidence is one of the more important challenges facing the nation’s leaders in the years ahead.

This is the really scary thing to consider going forward. It is tempting to think that Donald Trump’s post-truth campaign is an anomaly that will self immolate as it continues its path of self destruction. The Gallup data, however, suggest that even as people perceive the economy as improving, the scar tissue surrounding trust in authority is far more long-lasting.

A healthy skepticism toward institutions is not the worst trait in the world; indeed, blind allegiance to authority probably leads to far worse outcomes. There’s skepticism, however, and then there’s willful ignorance. Both Brexit and the Trump campaign seem to exist because of the latter impulse. The marshaling of undisputed facts and evidence doesn’t have quite the effect on public debate that it used to. And this problem is not going away anytime soon.