Tag Archives: government

Why America Elects Moral Midgets

I haven’t previously posted about the Impeachment trial. Initially, I figured that, since virtually everyone who has an opinion has written, spoken and generally fulminated about those opinions, there wasn’t much of value I could add.

Most of the commentary has–quite correctly–pointed to the cowardice and lack of integrity of all but seven Republican Senators. Columns and editorials have especially zeroed in on the breathtaking hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell; in his speech immediately after the vote, he made it clear that he knew Trump was guilty as charged. The fig leaf that McConnell and his spineless colleagues  were frantically trying to hide behind was an utterly unpersuasive opinion that a President who no longer held office could not be constitutionally impeached–an opinion rejected by virtually all constitutional scholars.

It also didn’t escape notice that McConnell was the reason the trial had been delayed until after Biden was inaugurated.

Suffice it to say that the overwhelming hypocrisy and dishonesty in the face of what everyone in that chamber clearly knew was astounding–and it has all been the subject of widespread condemnation. What hasn’t been adequately analyzed, however, is how we got here–“here” being a legislative chamber containing so many Senators clearly unworthy of public office.

I am convinced that the pathetic performance Americans saw last week was the result of forty-plus years of denigrating the very existence of government and belittling those who serve in it.

Reagan started the incessant attacks, and Republican dogma ever since has been that government–far from being an important tool for collective action addressing America’s problems–is always and inevitably a threat that must be constrained and hobbled.  Republican messaging has been sneering and dismissive of the very notion that government might be an essential mechanism for achieving the common good. It has been years since I heard a Republican politician employ terms like “statesmanship” and/or “public service.”

When I saw that both of Indiana’s undistinguished, moral-pygmy Senators had (predictably) voted to acquit, I could almost picture them spitting on Dick Lugar’s grave…

The Republican demonization of government has largely succeeded in changing the identity of the GOP. The political culture that produced statesmen like Dick Lugar and Bill Hudnut has been replaced by the slimy “what’s in it for me” opportunism of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump–and Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and too many others.

Honorable, talented people are attracted to careers that those in their particular tribes consider prestigious and admirable. When government employment is denigrated and mocked–“couldn’t get a real job?”– when political actors are expected to be corrupt, and when politics is widely considered the refuge of blowhards and scoundrels, blowhards and scoundrels are who it will attract.

It’s instructive to emphasize that these persistent attacks on government and public service have come overwhelmingly from Republicans. Democrats have been far more likely to defend the importance and worth of  America’s political institutions, and I don’t think it is just happenstance that as a result–as we can see at the federal level– Democratic officeholders these days tend to be considerably more public-spirited, honorable and impressive than their Republican peers.

Today’s Democrats have Jamie Raskin; Republicans have Marjorie Taylor Green…

 

Trust Me

One of the approximately ten zillion critical tasks facing President Biden is the need to restore Americans’ trust in the integrity of their government. Biden is well-equipped to begin that restoration–he is a thoroughly decent and trustworthy man–but it won’t be easy.

Time Magazine recently began an article with some very concerning data:

After an unprecedented year of global pain, loss and uncertainty, a new report finds that 2020 marked “an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.”

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, a study published annually by global communications firm Edelman, unveiled its findings on Wednesday after conducting more than 33,000 online surveys in 28 countries between October and November 2020. The firm found that public trust had eroded even further in social institutions—which Edelman defines as government, business, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media—from 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, global outcry against racial injustice and growing mistrust of what political leaders say and journalists report.

The research found that most people trust businesses– especially their own employers– over government and media. Trust in journalists is split along party lines. Among the consequences of this pervasive distrust is a particularly worrisome one:  only 1 in 3 people are “ready to take the [COVID-19] vaccine as soon as possible.”

Social trust is an essential and irreplaceable basis of a democratic society. Social capital–the bonding and bridging connections to others that make a society work–is defined as a combination of trust and reciprocity.

Social scientists warn that erosion of interpersonal trust has very negative implications for democratic self-government. When I was researching my 2009 book Distrust, American Style, that erosion was already visible. Some scholars suggested that the country’s growing diversity had led to a loss of the cohesion achievable in more homogeneous societies; my research suggested a different culprit. I became absolutely convinced that generalized social trust requires reliably trustworthy social and governing institutions.

In other words, fish rot from the head.

As I argued in that book, the nature of the trust we need is justifiable confidence in the integrity of government and civil society writ large. That confidence was being steadily undermined–not just by what seemed to be daily scandals in business (Enron, Worldcom, et al), sports (doping, dog fighting), religion (revelations about the Catholic Church’s inadequate response to child molestation), and the George W. Bush government (duplicities which seem almost innocent in contrast to the past four years)–but especially  by the Internet.

Suddenly, Americans were marinating in information. Publicity about each scandal and details about a seemingly pervasive lack of trustworthiness was impossible to avoid.

It has gotten considerably worse since 2009. Now we are swimming in a vast sea of information, disinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories–and as a consequence, trust has continued its sharp decline.

The problem is, without widespread social trust, societies are impossible to maintain.

Think about our daily lives: we deposit our paychecks and trust that the amount will be reflected on our next bank statement. We put a deposit down with the local electric utility and trust that service will be forthcoming. We call the fire department and anticipate their speedy arrival. We drop our clothing off at the cleaners and trust it will be there, cleaned, to pick up. We buy goods online and trust they’ll arrive. We buy meat at the grocery and trust that it has been inspected and is fit to eat. We board an airplane and trust that it has passed a safety inspection and will travel in its assigned air lane..

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. And that picture is much broader–and social trust much more critical– than most of us realize.

An article in The Week had a relevant factoid: evidently, Twitter’s permanent ban of Trump has already made a huge difference. “One research firm found the amount of misinformation online dropped 73 percent in the week after the president and 70,000 QAnon aficionados were shut down by the platform.”

So–the solution to our trust deficit is obvious and simple (cough, cough); we just have to make government visibly trustworthy again, enforce regulations on the businesses and other institutions that are flouting rules with impunity, and figure out how to get online platforms to disallow misinformation and propaganda, without doing violence to the First Amendment.

Piece of cake!

I think I’m going to go pour myself a very stiff drink….

 

 

Mencken Didn’t Go Far Enough

A quotation by H.L. Mencken has been a recurring favorite on my Facebook feed since 2016. Famously curmudgeonly (is that a word?), Mencken wrote that

On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

The Trump Administration has fulfilled Mencken’s prophecy, but his prediction arguably didn’t go far enough. Those “plain folks” who elevated the “downright moron” have also saddled the other branches of government with a wide assortment of defective/dishonest incompetents.

There’s a tried-and-true assortment of ignorant racists in Congress. There’s Louie Gohmert, perfectly described by Charles Pierce as “the dumbest mammal to enter a legislative chamber since Caligula’s horse.” Steve King finally lost his seat, but Jim Jordan is still there. And of course, there’s Devin Nunes, who memorably sued a cow...There’s no dearth of candidates for the dubious honor of “dimmest lawmaker.”

The Washington Post recently ran a column by Dana Milbank that should have embarrassed newly elected Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville. However, Tuberville and those who voted for him appear immune to embarrassment, since the emotion requires recognition of what constitutes an embarrassing defect.

Tuberville — or “Tubs,” from his college football coaching days — is the Republican senator-elect from Alabama, and he’s proposing to object to the election results in the Senate on Jan. 6. Trump exulted: “Great senator.

Problem is, Tubs, if he were a Democrat, is what Trump might call a “low-IQ individual.” In their wisdom, the voters of Alabama chose to replace Democrat Doug Jones, who prosecuted the Birmingham church bombing, with a man who recently announced his discovery that there are “three branches of government,” namely, “the House, the Senate and the executive.”
  
He further informed the newspaper that “in 2000 Al Gore was president, United States, president-elect, for 30 days.” (Actual number of days Gore spent as president-elect: zero.)

Evidently, “Tubs” was able to avoid debates and interviews during the campaign. He did, however, issue a few statements transmitting a variety of his less-than-well-founded beliefs. When asked about his denial of climate change, he explained that “only God can change climate.” In response to a question about the opiod epidemic, he responded that “it isn’t just opioids, it’s also heroin.”

There’s more:

On health care: “We don’t have the answer until we go back to open up being a capitalistic health-care system where we have more than one insurance company.” (There are 952 health insurers in the United States.)

On education: “We’ve taken God out of the schools and we’ve replaced the schools with metal detectors.”

 Tubs has declared his desire to serve on the Senate “banking finance” committee, apparently unaware that banking and finance are separate committees — and that he is ineligible to serve on banking because Alabama’s senior Republican senator already does.

Milbank characterized Tuberville’s Senate campaign as “a magical voyage of discovery.” Tuberville had been unaware of a little Senate prerogative called “advice and consent,” or the existence and purpose of the Voting Rights Act–despite its centrality to years of public debate. 

As Milbank notes, as long as there are mental giants like Tuberville, “Trumpism will remain.” Trumpism, in this iteration, contains equal amounts of ignorance and venality; 
 when his business partner in a hedge fund pled guilty to fraud, Tuberville claimed he didn’t know anything. (Given his general performance, the assertion was convincing.) He also set up a foundation purportedly to help veterans, but veterans got only a third of the money raised.

As a candidate, Tubs offered exotic views on why rural hospitals closed (“because we don’t have Internet”), on impeachment (“I’ve been trying to keep up with it but it’s so hard”) and on constitutional democracy (“We’d probably get more done with just the president running this country. So let the Democrats go home”).

Alabama voters–who twice made Roy Moore the Chief Justice of their state Supreme Court– evidently epitomize the “plain folks” of Mencken’s observation.

Actually, it may be time to amend that Mencken prediction. It should read “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and they will be governed  almost entirely by morons.”

 

 

 

Trust Tells Us A Lot

As our social distancing drags on, researchers have been investigating the effects on social solidarity–how Americans view each other, and especially, any changes in the level of “social trust.” In this context, social trust is an indicator of what sociologists and political scientists call social capital.

The bad news is that, thanks to the ineptitude and constant and pathetically obvious lies from the Trump administration, trust in the federal government is very low. (Recent example: Israeli news reports revealed that U.S. Intelligence told Israel and NATO in November  about the threat posed by the coronavirus– contradicting Pentagon claims that no such report existed.)

The good news is that a couple of recent surveys have found improvement in the way Americans view each other. In that sense, it’s reminiscent of the change in attitudes triggered by the Great Depression. Suddenly, the very American (and arguably Calvinist) view that people are poor because they are morally defective–lazy or unmotivated–was replaced by recognition that poverty is largely a social phenomenon. (If there are no jobs, its harder to blame people for not having them.)

Social capital is the label we give to our memberships in social networks–the human relationships within which we are embedded. Trust is an important component of social capital–but so is reciprocity. Scholars define social capital as the institutionalized expectation that other people will reciprocate co-operative behaviors–the recognition that If we fail to work together when collective efforts are needed, we all become poorer.

There are two kinds of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital is possible only with shared identity (however identity is defined). It’s at the heart of tribalism: “I belong to this group, and I look with suspicion/disdain at those who don’t.” Bridging social capital, which has been in short supply recently, links people across cleavages that typically divide us (race, class, or religion). Its associations create ‘bridges’ between communities.

The surveys that suggest a growth in “generalized social trust” are encouraging because they hold out the hope that America may be restoring some of its lost bridging social capital.

I was reminded of the importance of trust and bridging social capital when I was cleaning out cabinets in my home office. (I don’t know how other people cope, but stress tends to turn me into a maniacal cleaning machine.) I came across a reprint of “SPEA Insights” –a PR publication we used to put out, highlighting faculty research. This one was from July of 2010; titled “Trust Me, Said the Spider,” it was focused on the then-recent publication of my book Distrust, American Style.

In it, I pointed out that trust in social institutions–especially but not exclusively government–is absolutely essential to contemporary life.

Think about it. We deposit our paychecks and take for granted that the funds will be there when we need to draw them out; we pay the electric bill and expect the lights to turn on when we throw the switch; we order a gizmo from Amazon or other Internet merchant and are confident the gizmo will be delivered. We go to our local grocery and buy a chicken, confident that we won’t have to individually test it for e coli when we get home.

On and on….

And–as I argued in that paper– Americans rely on government to ensure that our water is drinkable, our air breathable, our aircraft flyable, and so much more.

I was particularly struck by my own words from 2010:

“And when we go through a period when government is inept or corrupt, that confidence is shaken–but our skepticism and distrust affect more than just the political system. Trust in government sets the tone for confidence in all social institutions….From time to time, America goes through periods where the failures of our civic and governing institutions are so manifest that awareness of them is simply inescapable. In the era of the Internet, the amount of information received by even the most “low information” voters has been enormously amplified. When I wrote Distrrust, the American public was positively marinating in news of corruption and incompetence.”

That was 2010. Ten years ago. I’d say we’re pretty thoroughly marinated now.

The last sentence of that essay is truer today than ever, in the wake of this pandemic: “our first order of business must be the restoration of transparency, accountability and trustworthiness of our government.”

No kidding.

Apres Le Deluge…What?

Thanks to the pandemic, millions of jobs have been disappearing–many of them, hopefully, just on hiatus, but many probably for good.

What will America and the world look like when this pandemic has played out? What lessons will we have learned, and how will those lessons change us?

The New York Times has introduced an entire series devoted to the question. Daily Kos recently predicted eleven ways America will change in the wake of the coronavirus. Like many of you, I’ve been discussing with my children and grandchildren the likely reasons for the deadly incompetence of America’s federal governance and the likely consequences for the future.

We have a son who lives  in Amsterdam and a granddaughter who lives in England, so we have an international context within which to evaluate successes and failures; of the two, the Netherlands has clearly (in my view, at least) exhibited the better approach: in addition to the country’s already-robust social safety net, the government has imposed a moratorium on firing people and is subsidizing payrolls for the duration. The Netherlands is predicting an unemployment rate just under ten percent when the pandemic is gone; here, of course, joblessness predictions are far, far higher.

The real question for Americans, of course, is: what cultural attitudes will the pandemic experience change? And how?

Every news show, every advertisement, currently ends with “We are all in this together.” True. Will that recognition outlast the crisis? We are all on this planet together, too, but the threat of climate catastrophe hasn’t notably affected the fossil fuel predators and others more concerned with their bottom lines than with global survival.

Will the pandemic–and its incredible mismanagement–finally awaken Americans to the importance of competent government? To an appreciation of the people conspiracy nuts call “the deep state,” and rational people recognize as committed civil servants?

What about the escalating reports of corruption–reports about  how this despicable administration’s “best people” are enabling looting and polluting while the pandemic provides a distraction? Will American voters and the American media finally understand that character–defined as honesty and “servant leadership”–matter?

Will we finally join the rest of the world, and provide access to health care to all of our citizens, or will America’s “original sin” and continued tribalism prevent us from supporting universal programs that help all people, including black and brown people?  For that matter, will we respond the way we did after the Great Depression, with a new “New Deal” that recognizes that we really are all in this together—and that the pursuit of rational self-interest requires that we build a society that works for everyone?

Will we at least recognize that government’s obligation to protect its citizens extends far–far–beyond maintaining “law and order,” anti-terrorrism efforts and foreign wars (justified and unjustified)? One of the most unforgivable acts by this unforgivable administration was dismantling the efforts put in place by the Obama administration to plan for pandemics–can’t you just see Trump thinking, who will notice, right? That task force is just sucking up resources that we can use to reward donors with subsidies and tax cuts.

When I look at this very incomplete list, and think about other lessons we should learn, they all require a renewed appreciation of the importance of an appropriately structured and constrained government.  Once this election is over, and voters have (hopefully!!) ejected this utterly unfit administration, Americans need to engage in a national conversation about what government is for–what government should and should not do.

That conversation will be critical–and we absolutely cannot allow it to be hijacked by the ideologues and conspiracy theorists and looters.