The National Loss of Trust: Right, Left & Center

For some time now, I’ve heard a theme repeated by many Progressives: the Right has campaigned to destroy America’s trust in institution that don’t follow its party line. The mainstream media, old line Protestant denominations and university professors have lost public confidence after sieges by the right.

I began this post with the intent of agreeing with an article making this argument. I still agree with much of it.

But after reflecting on what I’d drafted, I realized the story is a lot more complicated. And, we Progressives bear no small responsibility for the distrustfulness that characterizes society today. Remember the 60s!

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When television first arrived at our house, I was 10 and it was late 1956. I’d spent many hours on Saturdays and after school watching in front of neighbors’ Dumonts. But our family still gathered around the radio on Sunday nights for Jack Benny.

Immediately that ritual ended. Its substitute was ‘Disneyland’. My brothers and I loved the show, especially the historical dramas such as ‘Davy Crockett’ and ‘The Swamp Fox’.

Disney dramas were history thoroughly scrubbed and idealized, but they were fun. They also emphasized community, nation-building, loyalty. In short, they were aspirational.

We tolerated the nature films, good – excellent – as they were. I remember films on cougars and beavers vividly.

And two of the three of us were bored stiff by the hour long promotional films for the studio’s theatrical productions and for the theme park, then under construction.

The third insisted he wanted to go to college in Los Angeles so he could be near Disneyland. When the time came, he chose Cambridge instead. A mistake….

***

In 1993 at similar ages my sons began watching every Sunday something very different: ‘The X-Files’.

One of its slogans seems to sum up the show: ‘Trust No One’. But, that’s an insidious simplification of its complete message: ‘Trust No One and Nothing’. In various magic potion-type episodes, it was: ‘Trust No One and Nothing, Even Yourself’.

For a time, I found it puzzling ‘The X-Files’ appeared on Fox. The Murdoch media identified themselves as conservative, values-based. But ‘The X-Files’ echoed not Burke or Bagehot, Tocqueville or Tolstoi but the dystopias of Lord of the Flies, Erehwon and 1984.

The medium – commercial television — conveyed the message perfectly: observe passively, fear actively, consume avidly.

These thoughts began the other day when I read a post on Grist – A Beacon in the Smog: David Roberts’ ‘The Right’s Climate Denialism is Part of Something Much Larger‘.

Roberts begins with a decent rehash of the resurgence of climate change denialism – with all things reactionary – brought on by the Great Recession. According to a Gallup Poll, 50 percent of conservatives thought signs of Global Warming were evident in 2008; only 30 percent thought so in 2010. The percentage of moderates slipped from 66 to 60 percent.

Roberts puts denialism in a broader context:

The right’s project over the last 30 years has been to dismantle the post-war liberal consensus by undermining trust in society’s leading institutions. Experts are made elites; their presumption of expertise becomes self-damning. They think they’re better than you. They talk down to you. They don’t respect people like us, real Americans.

No field is so dominated by experts and elites as the environment, and no segment of environmentalism more so than climate. Hence, the success of the attacks on these Gore-babies.

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None of this will come as news, though Roberts writes it better than most. What will shock are Roberts’ last two graphs and his conclusions on the effects of the right’s success broadly in destroying trust in American institutions since the Carter Administration.

According to Gallup, only two institutions have gained trust: the military and the police. Given Vietnam, the 35-year war on drugs, Iraq, Afghanistan, ‘extraordinary renditions’ and ‘harsh interrogation techniques’, Americans’ need to believe in something protective overwhelms evidence.

The Supreme Court has added its weight to the authoritarian trend. For 20 years, it has progressively narrowed the power of judges and juries to evaluate testimony by experts who challenge conventional science. Through what are called Daubert challenges, the Court lessened the ability of injured parties to defeat corporate testimony in product liability cases.

The public perception of the trustworthiness of the military and police will stun many of those approaching their mid-60s whose mantra 40+ years ago was ‘Never trust anyone over 30.’ But if the national capacity for trust has declined since the Baby Boomers started college, it is in no small part attributable to the failure of institutions to earn their trust.

The rebellion against authority challenged the defenses of automakers of lethal defects in cars and pesticide makers of chemicals that destroyed birds ability to reproduce. Both industries had ardent defenders in the academy and government.

The fact that many of the Boomers’ challenges to authority were well-founded does not alter the damage done to trust relationships. Nor should the Right get a pass for its continuing campaign against expertise. But how we restore trust, I don’t know.

The answer does not lurk in the refrain of the theme song for Disney’s 1959-60 mini-series on a rancher-law man:

…Texas John Slaughter

Made ‘em do what they oughter,

‘Cause if they didn’t,

They died.

-30-

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