The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans have lost faith in institutions. That’s not because of Trump or ‘fake news.’

Everything about modern life works against community and trust.

Dirty Bandits for The Washington Post

The easiest sell of President Trump’s life is that a “corrupt” media produces “fake news.” After all, fewer than 2 in 10 Americans have “a lot” of trust in news organizations, the Pew Research Center has found, and we live in a “Matrix”-infused “conspiracy culture,” according to social scientists, where one is thought to be impossibly simple to not understand that the world is ruled by collusion and machination.

Trump has helped make trust a big deal for media types, and they are now searching for ways to regain the faith of their readers. To combat the “fake news” charge, the New York Times, for example, is running full-page ads and even bought a television spot during the Oscars declaring that “the truth is more important now than ever.” For some, the problem is that journalists have allowed too much of their personalities to creep into their work. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor David Shribman prescribes “less analysis and more reporting, less personality and more facts.” For others, there’s a need to demonstrate that journalists are not faceless elites but real people. Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank wrote of his newsroom colleagues: “They hail from all corners of this country, from farms and small towns, the children of immigrants and factory workers, preachers and teachers.” But even local papers, the ones most closely connected to their readers, are struggling to defend their integrity. One editor of a rural California paper accepted an op-ed about the danger of “fake news” in an attempt to instill some faith among the anti-press crowd.

You can hear similarly fretful discussions in dozens of other professions. The president has maligned politicians, scientists, judges, teachers, labor union leaders and intelligence officials, among others. “Donald Trump’s most damaging legacy may be a lower-trust America,” the Economist’s Lexington column predicted. Trust in American institutions, however, has been in decline for some time. Trump is merely feeding on that sentiment.

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. The decline in trust isn’t because of what the press (or politicians or scientists) did or didn’t do. Americans didn’t lose their trust because of some particular event or scandal. And trust can’t be regained with a new app or even an outbreak of competence. To believe so is to misunderstand what was lost.

In 1964, 3 out of 4 Americans trusted their government to do the right thing most of the time. By 1976, that number had dropped to 33 percent. It was a decline that political scientist Walter Dean Burnham described as “among the largest ever recorded in opinion surveys.”

Of course, that intervening period brought a series of tumultuous events: the expansion of the war in Vietnam, the Watts riots of ’65, the civil rights movement and, then, assassinations and Watergate. These affairs have served as shorthand explanations for our decline in trust. After all, who could trust an incompetent government that brought us scandal, riots and an unpopular war?

There are at least two problems with this explanation. First, the decline in trust in government has been accompanied by falling trust in nearly every institution. Why should a riot in Watts lead to distrust of organized labor? Yes, the news of the day caused fluctuations in how Americans felt about their institutions. The Watergate scandal caused Americans to lose faith in their government. Conversely, after the country was attacked on 9/11, trust in government soared and people went back to church. After the impact of scandal and threat faded, however, the long-term trends returned.

Second, the erosion hasn’t been confined to the United States. “Declining trust in government has spread across almost all advanced industrial democracies since the 1960s/1970s,” writes political scientist Russell Dalton. “Regardless of political history, electoral system, or style of government, most contemporary publics are less trustful of government than they were in the era of their grandparents.”

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

For instance, historian Martin Marty describes a “seismic shift” in religion. “From the birth of the republic until around 1965, as is well known, the churches now called mainline Protestant tended to grow with every census or survey,” Marty wrote. And then, the pews started to empty. The six largest Protestant denominations together lost 5.6 million members — a fifth to a third of their membership — between 1965 and 1990.

And civic engagement has declined. Harvard’s Robert Putnam has counted the drop in members of the Lions, the League of Women Voters and, famously, bowling leagues beginning in the mid-’60s . The decline of these associations brought about a decrease in consistent social connections. Society began to fray.

The changes that seemed to erupt suddenly in the early 1960s actually began long before and moved slowly at first, as the globe shrank and societies modernized. As far back as the 1600s, travelers confronted by new cultures and novel deities began to question their own societies’ rules and institutions. “Not a tradition which escapes challenge, not an idea, however familiar, which is not assailed; not an authority that is allowed to stand,” historian Paul Hazard wrote. “Institutions of every kind are demolished, and negation is the order of the day.” This was the Enlightenment, a turning away from tradition and an anointing of reason, scientific inquiry and individualism.

Rising incomes and the welfare state brought Enlightenment individuality to the people. Political scientist Ron Inglehart proposed in the 1970s that as societies grow wealthier and less concerned about basic survival, we should expect a shift from communal to individual values: People express themselves more and trust authorities less.

Everything about modern life works against community and trust. Globalization and urbanization put people in touch with the different and the novel. Our economy rewards initiative over conformity, so that the weight of convention and tradition doesn’t squelch the latest gizmo from coming to the attention of the next Bill Gates. Whereas parents in the 1920s said it was most important for their children to be obedient, that quality has declined in importance, replaced by a desire for independence and autonomy. Widespread education gives people the tools to make up their own minds. And technology offers everyone the chance to be one’s own reporter, broadcaster and commentator.

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. It has changed the purpose of marriage (once a practical arrangement, now a means of personal fulfillment). It has altered the relationship between citizens and the state (an all-volunteer fighting force replacing the military draft). It has transformed the understanding of art (craftsmanship and assessment are out; free-range creativity and self-promotion are in). It has even inverted the orders of humanity and divinity (instead of obeying a god, now we choose one).

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. “Depression is truly our modern illness,” writes French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg, with rates 20 to 30 times what they were just two generations ago.

Sustained collective action has also become more difficult. Institutions are turning to behavioral “nudges,” hoping to move an increasingly suspicious public to do what once could be accomplished by command or law. As groups based on tradition and consistent association dwindle, they are being replaced by “event communities,” temporary gatherings that come and go without long-term commitment (think Burning Man). The protests spawned by Trump’s election are more about passion than organization and focus. Today’s demonstrations are sometimes compared to civil-rights-era marches, but they have more in common with L.A.’s Sunset Strip riots of 1966, when more than 1,000 young people gathered to object to a 10 p.m. curfew. “There’s something happening here,” goes the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth,” commemorating the riots. “What it is ain’t exactly clear.” In our new politics, expression is a purpose itself.

A polarized and distrustful electorate may stymie the national government, but locally most communities are either overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic. In 2016, 8 out of 10 U.S. counties gave either Trump or Hillary Clinton a landslide victory. In these increasingly homogenous communities, nobody need bother about compromise and the trust it requires. From anti-abortion measures to laws governing factory farming, the policy action is taking place where majorities can do what they want without dealing with “those people” who live the next state over or a few miles down the road. At last count, 1 in 4 Americans supports the idea of their state seceding from the union.

Solutions and action shrink to the size of the individual. Increasing numbers of New York state parents have been holding their children out of end-of-year school tests in a kind of DIY education reform. In some Los Angeles schools, so many parents opt out of the vaccination regime that inoculation rates are on a par with South Sudan’s as people make their own scientific judgments. The “we medicine” of community health, writes Donna Dickenson, is replaced by the “me medicine” of individual genetic testing, tailored drug regimes and all manner of personal “enhancement” technologies. And where once antitrust laws were used to break up monopolies in food markets, Michael Pollan concludes that today, we must “vote with our fork.”

These are all penny-in-a-burned-out-fuse solutions that don’t touch the big issues, such as economic inequality and climate change. They also avoid the question that now demands an answer: How does an increasingly diverse society govern itself democratically?

Political scientists tell us that democracies require a little faith. To engage with others, you have to believe that if you lose a contest or a debate, the winner will treat you equitably; that if the other side wins, it will act within the law and not send its opponents off to jail. You have to assume that institutions will be fair and that leaders will act in the country’s best interest.

“Aren’t you concerned, Sir,” CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Trump at last month’s news conference, “that you are undermining the people’s faith in the First Amendment, freedom of the press, the press in [this] country, when you call stories you don’t like fake news?”

Trump responded: “The public doesn’t believe you people anymore. Now maybe I had something to do with that. I don’t know. But they don’t believe you. If you were straight and really told it like it is . . . I would be your biggest booster.”

The president is right that they don’t believe. But he’s wrong to take credit for it — and wrong to suggest that there’s much that can be done.