February 27, 2022
by Stephen Stofka
A central archetype of the American character is an individual who stands up to a large institution. America declared independence in defiance of the British Empire. The text and spirit of the Constitution shows a healthy distrust of institutional power. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart played an idealistic young man who wrestled with the power politics of the Washington elite. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg challenged the White House and Defense Dept when he released the details of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. In his 2016 Presidential campaign, Donald Trump played the newcomer, ready to challenge the institutional power of Washington. This week thousands of Ukrainian civilians volunteered to take up arms against the Russian Army’s assault on their capital, Kyiv. This was a defiant defense of democracy that most Americans could champion.
Americans have long been conflicted in their attitudes to the institutions that form the web of civic life. Our faith in government has been sorely tested in the past two decades. The pretext for the war in Iraq was founded on faulty intelligence and political passion. The fall of Enron and the discrediting of a large accounting firm, Arthur Anderson, led many to question what the attention and motives of the many agencies that took up office space in Washington. The financial crisis confirmed our worst fears. Corruption, incompetence and political impotence had helped bring the global financial system to its knees. When the pandemic touched the shores of America in early 2020, there was not much belief left in the reservoir of American trust.
In late 2018, the Pew Research Center interviewed 10,000 Americans about their trust in government (Rainie et al., 2021). Trust in government was at historic lows and ¾ of respondents thought it had become much worse in the past twenty years. A supermajority of Americans can’t distinguish truth from lies when politicians speak. At that time, only 42% of those interviewed thought that a lack of trust was a big problem. The pandemic has revealed just how big a problem it is. Parents have threatened school board officials. Thousands of airline passengers have threatened fellow passengers and airline employees. Americans have reacted violently not to an invading army but to mask mandates. Is this what we fight for?
A lack of trust in government may be very low but it is not new. More troubling is the growing lack of trust we have in other Americans, an unraveling of social cohesion that takes years to develop and decades to repair. Under the pretense of fostering connection with others, social media helps drive us apart with carefully written algorithms that promote conflict as a form of social engagement. We need an enemy other than our neighbors. As Ukrainians escape with their children to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Moldova – as they sleep in subway tunnels to escape bombardment by Russian troops – as they take up arms to protect their capital – let’s remember that the real test of freedom is not whether we have to wear a mask in a grocery store or on a plane.
Rainie, L., Keeter, S., & Perrin, A. (2021, July 27). Trust and Distrust in America. Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/trust-and-distrust-in-america/