Friday, July 31, 2020

Global Elites Are Actively Undermining Trust In Sovereign Nation States

tomdispatch |  Let’s say you live in a country where the government responded quickly and competently to Covid-19. Let’s say that your government established a reliable testing, contact tracing, and quarantine system. It either closed down the economy for a painful but short period or its system of testing was so good that it didn’t even need to shut everything down. Right now, your life is returning to some semblance of normal.
Lucky you.

The rest of us live in the United States. Or Brazil. Or Russia. Or India. In these countries, the governments have proven incapable of fulfilling the most important function of the state: protecting the lives of their citizens. While most of Europe and much of East Asia have suppressed the pandemic sufficiently to restart their economies, Covid-19 continues to rage out of control in those parts of the world that, not coincidentally, are also headed by democratically elected right-wing autocrats.

In these incompetently run countries, citizens have very good reason to mistrust their governments. In the United States, for instance, the Trump administration botched testing, failed to coordinate lockdowns, removed oversight from the bailouts, and pushed to reopen the economy over the objections of public-health experts. In the latest sign of early-onset dementia for the Trump administration, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany declared this month that “science should not stand in the way” of reopening schools in the fall.

Voters, of course, could boot Trump out in November and, assuming he actually leaves the White House, restore some measure of sanity to public affairs. But the pandemic is contributing to an already overwhelming erosion of confidence in national institutions. Even before the virus struck, in its 2018 Trust Barometer the public relations firm Edelman registered an unprecedented drop in public trust connected to... what else?... the election of Trump. “The collapse of trust in the U.S. is driven by a staggering lack of faith in government, which fell 14 points to 33% among the general population,” the report noted. “The remaining institutions of business, media, and NGOs also experienced declines of 10 to 20 points.”

And you won’t be surprised to learn that the situation hadn’t shown signs of improvement by 2020, with American citizens even more mistrustful of their country’s institutions than their counterparts in Brazil, Italy, and India.

That institutional loss of faith reflects a longer-term trend. According to Gallup’s latest survey, only 11% of Americans now trust Congress, 23% big business and newspapers, 24% the criminal justice system, 29% the public school system, 36% the medical system, and 38% the presidency. The only institution a significant majority of Americans trust -- and consider this an irony, given America’s endless twenty-first-century wars -- is the military (73%). The truly scary part is that those numbers have held steady, with minor variations, for the last decade across two very different administrations.

How low does a country’s trust index have to go before it ceases being a country? Commentators have already spent a decade discussing the polarization of the American electorate. Much ink has been spilled over the impact of social media in creating political echo chambers. It’s been 25 years since political scientist Robert Putnam observed that Americans were “bowling alone” (that is, no longer participating in group activities or community affairs in the way previous generations did).

The coronavirus has generally proven a major force multiplier of such trends by making spontaneous meetings of unlike-minded people ever less likely. I suspect I’m typical. I’m giving a wide berth to pedestrians, bicyclists, and other joggers when I go out for my runs. I’m not visiting cafes. I’m not talking to people in line at the supermarket. Sure, I’m on Zoom a lot, but it’s almost always with people I already know and agree with.

Under these circumstances, how will we overcome the enormous gaps of perception now evident in this country to achieve anything like the deeper basic understandings that a nation-state requires? Or will Americans lose faith entirely in elections, newspaper stories, hospitals, and public transportation, and so cease being a citizenry altogether?

Trust is the fuel that makes such institutions run. And it looks as though we passed Peak Trust long ago and may be on a Covid-19 sled heading downhill fast.


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