This past Sunday, the Washington Post had an interesting piece by Bill Bishop. If you don’t know Bishop, and you have an interest in understanding American’s current social and political problems, then I suggest you pick up his book The Big Sort. It really is one of the best books I’ve read in the past 10 years. It’s was a fascinating read.
In this past Sunday’s piece, Bishop looks at why our trust in institutions is at such a low level. In 1964 roughly 75% of the American public trusted their government to do the right thing. By 1976 that trust level was down to 33%. A big swing in 12 years. Now, during that period we had the assassination of 2 major national figures, civil rights unrest, a major political realignment, an unpopular war, and the resignation of Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. But while all of these things may have added to a decline in trusting government, they aren’t, Bishop argues, the real story here.
Bishop points to two big trends in recent history. First, the decline in people trusting their government parallels a “falling trust in nearly ever institution,” both public and private. So it’s not just the government we’re talking about here, we need to be clear on that. Second, this trust deficit, though maybe not as bad as it is in the U.S., is a trend across most industrial democracies. So it’s not just America either.
Americans may have less trust in their government, but they’re also walking away (no longer trusting or wanting to be involved with) from organized religion and many other civic associations that use to serve in helping unify us. Bishop sees expanding diversity, the welfare state, and rising wealth as social engines that have brought about an “Enlightenment Individuality” in our society, which in many ways is inimical to the maintenance of community and trust. More than ever people are “artists of their own lives,” shedding traditions and cultural norms. While this is liberating in many ways, it’s also, when taken in the large, socially disrupting because it weakens social cohesion.
The interesting point, from a historical perspective, is that this trend is something much older than we think. Where ever there is an intersection of commerce, wealth, culture and diversity, you will have this pull toward “negation.”
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.
And so while some people may point to Donald Trump as the personification of a movement against the so called “establishment,” it’s far more accurate to say he’s simply riding a wave, a historical trend that has little to do with him at all.
Bishop finishes his piece by saying there really isn’t anything we can do about this. Personally I think he’s wrong on that point. It will take, as William Hazlitt said, “a lot of fine writing,” strong leadership, good will and good government, all things in very short supply right now, to push this long term trend in another direction. But it can be done.