Trust in Our Institutions: The Issue in 2012


Somerville, Mass.: Honk Festival, Leftist Marching Band 10/2011

          Friday’s big story was Mitt Romney’s response on every available TV vector to Barack Obama’s attacks on his business record – and trustworthiness.  The party of ‘Swift Boating’ didn’t make a Kerry mistake:  failing to respond to a torpedo attack in torpid weather.          With his trustworthiness at issue and at stake, Romney extended his defense to networks other than Fox.  That was far more significant than his content.

          It’s a yawn that conservatives restrict interviews to Fox News’s friendly faces.  But Fox has built its power by fostering mistrust, especially of government.  Fox’s first hit show, The X Files, and its mantra of ‘trust no one’ in authority, became the basis for Fox News.  (Why anyone relying on Fox would vote, except negatively, I’ve never understood.)

          So, Romney had to find less tainted vectors for his message.

          Our Founders shared a healthy scepticism about the exercise of government power.  Hence, the Constitution’s ‘checks and balances’.  Still, the whole jury-rigged American system depends on trust:  trust in our institutions, trust in our fellow citizens.

          Trust is a deeply conservative value.  It has limited the number of serious insurrections here to one since 1787.  So, the attack on trust by self-described conservatives seems suicidal.  They have the most to lose from radical change.

          I don’t use ‘suicidal’ colloquially or metaphorically.  I mean it literally.

          To see why, read William Finnegan, ‘The Kingpins’ in The New Yorker dated July 2, on ‘the fight for Guadalajara’.  What makes his picture hopeless is the loss of trust at all social levels in Mexico’s civil institutions.

          Those who’ve viewed the domestic and foreign drug wars as worse than futile from their start will find their views confirmed.  Narco-violence has spread to half of Mexico’s states.

          As in most protracted wars, the Drug War’s nature is evolving.  As a result, simply abandoning the field, which a decade ago might have been possible, has stopped being an option.  That’s Finnegan’s unexpressed message.

          The days of ‘Traffik‘ and ‘The French Connection’ have ended.  The comfortable narrative – of Prohibition-type gangs shielded by corrupt officialdom but pursued by a few honest cops – has given way in Mexico to the anarchy of petit fiefdoms in deadly struggles like post-Roman western Europe.

          How long Norte Americanos will remain relatively unaffected has troubled me since the Zetas emerged a few years ago.

          The Zetas, soldiers and para-military often trained to fight American proxy wars in Latin America, are using the methamphetamine trade as one of several means to take control of a broad band of Mexico.  Unlike marijuana and cocaine, the meth trade requires raw materials from East Asia and refining sites with access to distribution routes.

          For the Zetas, power and control are the objectives, not just getting rich by supplying First World wants.  Kidnaping for ransom of people at all social levels (largely unreported unless dozens of victims are involved) is both a line of business and a means of control.  Mass murders, assassinations and the displays of mutilated victims assert the Zetas control.

          This is the great unintended consequence of the all-corrupting drug wars.  The entirely justified popular loss of trust in civil and military authority created the vacuum the Zetas are now filling.

          Will the tsunami of violence shift northward?  I don’t pretend to know the answer.  But the erosion of trust in this country doesn’t bode well.

           This past weekend, ‘Fabius Maximus’ analysed results from the Gallup Confidence in Institutions Poll.  (FM’s graphic is well worth looking at.)

The results are more striking from the their first survey in 1999 to the 2011 survey. Confidence in almost every institution has declined. Especially note the loss of confidence in the three branches of government.

           • the medical system: -1%

          • public schools: -2%

          • newspapers: -5%

          • organized labor: -7%

          • TV news: -7%

          • church: -10%

          • big business: -11%

          • the presidency: -12%

          • Congress: -14%

          • the supreme court: -14%

          • banks: -20%

           Our confidence has increased in a few institutions.

           • the police: +2%

          • the criminal justice system: +5%

          • the military: +10%

           These numbers should sober the most enthusiastic Fox News and Grover Norquist acolytes.  Their attack on government as an institution worthy of trust, and therefore nurture through taxes, has succeeded.

           The public now looks to institutions with guns to protect them.  But, the drug wars and race have corrupted the police and the justice system of which they’re a part.  The budget wars have starved the unarmed elements of the system to the point of catastrophic failure.

           Meanwhile, the military has become increasingly separated from American society.  Their support for civilian authority has decreased steadily since Gen. Colin Powell refused President Bill Clinton’s order on gays in the military.  Today, senior officers and private soldiers alike show their disrespect for civil authority by wearing fatigues off base.

           What happens if, like Mexicans, Americans lose faith in these last institutions?  Very quickly, Americans may become the peasants in ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘The Seven Samurai’.

           Our historical moment – not just this election year – is about trust, our trust in ourselves and our willingness to govern ourselves.  Are we willing to commit ourselves to a common effort or will we reduce ourselves to seeking unemployed gunslingers or samurai to protect our bandit looted hovels?

           That’s our choice.