Tag Archives: trust

Hear Ye, Hear Ye…

For those of us desperate for any good news, any glimmer of hope that America might eventually emerge from the purgatory into which we’ve been plunged by the MAGA party, a newsletter from the Brennan Center recently offered that glimmer. (No link, sorry.)

On September 30, President Biden announced ten more federal court nominees, bringing the administration’s total number of nominees to 53. Biden also announced four nominees to serve on local D.C. courts.

Biden’s eighth slate of nominees includes two civil rights lawyers and three current or former public defenders. Several of the nominees, if confirmed, would also mark historic firsts: the first Asian American man on the Western District Court of Washington, the first Asian American woman on the Southern District Court of California, and the first Hispanic district court judge in Ohio.

According to CNN, more than 25% of Biden’s nominees to date are Black, 21% are Hispanic or Latino, and 23% are Asian American or Pacific Islanders. Close to 75% are women. In addition, 32% of Biden’s judicial nominees are former public defenders and 25% are civil rights lawyers.

Biden is confirming judges at a rate faster than any other president at this point in their term since Richard Nixon, according to Bloomberg Law. Sixteen of Biden’s judicial nominees have been confirmed so far.

I feared–and still fear–that Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump had ensured a generation in which the federal courts would be lost to principles of justice and equality. After all, they did manage to elevate a number of ideological and, frequently, demonstrably unqualified partisans to those courts. The Biden Administration is clearly aware of the need to ensure the ongoing integrity of the courts, and equally aware of the need to populate the bench with Americans who are both competent and representative of the country as a whole.

So–good news. I’ll take it.

Unfortunately, all the emerging reports about America’s courts are not as positive as that one. That same newsletter relayed the conclusions of an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that found 130 federal judges had violated U.S. law and judicial ethics by “overseeing court cases involving companies in which they or their family owned stock.”

The Journal reported that between 2010 and 2018, 129 federal district court judges and two federal appellate judges had failed to recuse themselves from 685 cases in which they or their families had a financial conflict, and that approximately two-thirds of the rulings subsequently favored the judges’ or their family’s financial interests.

One of the reasons for this country’s current angst is the public’s loss of trust in the institutions of American government. Trump certainly accelerated suspicion of government bureaucrats with his paranoia about the “deep state,” and he fed a wide variety of conspiracy theories, but much of the loss of trust preceded him. (My book, Distrust American Style, was published in 2009, and the phenomenon was anything but new.) Confidence in the administration hit an all-time low under Trump (and for good reason), but Congress has been utterly feckless for well over a decade.

The courts were, for a time, the holdout.

With McConnell’s success in remaking the Supreme Court into an instrument of partisanship, and four years of appointments of partisan hacks  (mostly White men) to the federal bench, those of us who’ve been paying attention lost hope that the courts would salvage constitutional principles–or at the very least, stem the tide.

I doubt that the Biden Administration has the political capital to do what very clearly needs to be done: either enlarge the Supreme Court or impose limits on Justices’ terms of service. Scholars of the judiciary have been advocating various mechanisms for expanding  the Court for years–far preceding McConnell’s mischief–for reasons of efficiency; they’ve also been advocating term limits in recognition of the fact that Justices live much longer than they used to. (Terms of 18 years, the usual recommendation, would probably be long enough to insulate Justices from political pressure– the original reason for lifetime appointments.)

In the absence of meaningful structural change, the nakedly partisan makeup of the Supreme Court is likely to keep trust in the courts low–leaving discontented citizens with nowhere to turn for redress of grievances.

Of course, speaking of “redress of grievances,” we might remind folks that there is this thing called the ballot box…

 

 

 

Voter Turnout

A good friend and former colleague of mine moved back to Canada a few years ago, to accept a prestigious position. (I say “back” because he was originally from Canada. He’d married a U.S.Citizen, obtained joint citizenship, and for many years was a highly respected bioethicist at U.S. institutions of higher education.) We continue to correspond, and in the wake of Canada’s recent election, he sent me a column from a Canadian newspaper, bemoaning that election’s low turnout.

He also sent the results of a Google search for turnout percentages in both the U.S. and Canada. (You know what’s coming, don’t you??) Here’s a portion of his message:

I did find it charming that the article bemoaning low Canadian turnout (which this year was a historical low at ~58%) is still significantly higher than in the US. 
 
Apart from the Trump v Hilary election in 2016 when it was 50%, the last time US voter turnout was above 50% was in 1912 if I am reading the charts correctly. 
 
Worth pondering, eh?

The newspaper article quoted Canadian political observers on the possible reasons for what the Canadians considered “depressed” turnout. The pandemic was one possibility, and attitudes about the need for this particular election were also mentioned. But the observation that really struck me was this one:

“We’ve historically had really high trust in our democratic institutions, in our election process … and I think that the challenges that they faced in this election are going to take some time to rebuild confidence in our elections.”

That prompted me to consider just where we are in today’s U.S. If turnout depends upon trust in the integrity of the electoral system, what can we expect in the wake of the GOP’s Trumpian assault on that integrity?

If a decision to vote requires trust– trust that one’s vote will count, trust that the election is being honestly run, trust that there is a meaningful difference between the candidates for office, trust that the people who’ve earned your vote will do their best to follow through on their promised agendas–what happens when a significant portion of the GOP believes, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that voter fraud is rampant and the 2020 election was rigged?

It isn’t just trust in the administration of elections–trust in government has been steadily ebbing in the US. The evidence goes well beyond our pathetic voter turnout figures. If that meant that we could count on a direct correspondence between low turnout and the distrust that has led to virulently anti-government sentiment, we might expect a lot of Republicans to stay home in 2022 and 2024 (and from my perspective, that would be a very good thing).

But of course, it’s never that simple.

One of the regular readers of this blog sent me a You Tube interview between a scholar with the Humphrey School of the University of Minnesota and  Stan Greenberg, the former Yale professor who’s been a Democratic pollster pretty much forever. Greenberg explained Trump’s 2016 win by pointing out that his racist appeal had generated turnout from people who’d never before voted—and according to his research, those previous non-voters remain engaged.

Evidently, they do have trust–trust that the current iteration of the GOP will protect White Christian dominance.

One of the oldest and truest rules of politics is that turnout is everything. It doesn’t matter how many Americans agree with party A or party B–as the saying goes, the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day.

The only way to ensure robust turnout of voters for what is currently the only sane party is for the Democrats to pass their agenda–especially the expansive infrastructure bill and the voting rights bill–and demonstrate that government can work, that Democrats can be trusted, that the right to participate in democratic deliberation via the ballot box can be protected.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Democrats are right about everything, only that they are currently the only sane option. We are truly at an inflection point, and constitutional government is in the cross-hairs.

Meanwhile, the Earth keeps warming, the GOP is now entirely the party of the batshit crazies, and I am very afraid that the Democrats will be unable to control their circular firing squad.

The world my grandchildren will inherit looks very scary….

 

 

Social Capital And Covid-19

Until I entered academic life, I was unfamiliar with the concept of social capital. Human capital is more easily understood; it refers to the skills and knowledge of a given individual. Social capital, on the other hand, refers to the positive and negative qualities of networks, of our human connections to others.

There are two types of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital occurs within families, clans and associations such as churches and fraternal organizations, where members–those considered “one of us”–are nurtured and supported. Bridging social capital, on the other hand, fosters relationships between otherwise unrelated groups or individuals who benefit from the networks’ trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation.

The relationships that characterize  bonding social capital are sometimes referred to as thick, even tribal. The connections formed by bridging social capital are considered thinner, but given the increasing diversity of the American population, bridging social capital is critically important.

Scholarly and media attention to these connections within human societies has grown since the theories were first advanced in the mid-twentieth century, and I was intrigued by an August article in The New Yorker that investigated the connection between COVID-19 transmission and  bridging social capital. 

Now, all general truths about the pandemic are premature. But the empirical results so far seem at least to suggest an intriguing paradox: that places with a great deal of social capital got hit worst by the virus, and then recovered fastest. This is reportedly the case with the secular, social-democratic countries of the European Union, none of them particularly religious, but many of them rich in shared networks of trust.

Evidently, the research showed that people in places who were not socially distanced at the start of the plague–but places with significant amounts of social trust– had an easier time learning to social-distance by its end.

Translated from the academese, people who are used to going out a lot stopped when people they trusted told them that doing so was a good way to get sick. That’s a process familiar to New Yorkers. Cursed by our density and our place as a cosmopolitan crossroads to suffer worst from the plague, our capacity for self-regulation under rational government direction has moved us dramatically forward, or, rather, downward. We had, through nearly all of April, above a twenty-per-cent positive-testing rate; now, by living behind our masks and (mostly) staying out of bars, we have driven the number below one per cent.

 As the author points out, social trust is “earned and banked” over many years of trustworthy governance.

In America, we have been undergoing a kind of four-year experiment in what happens to a country when social trust and social capital are not merely badly maintained but actively corroded…. We have been living a four-year exercise in destroying social trust and replacing it with gangster values: loyalty to the capo at all costs, and vengeance on his competitors and enemies taken at his direction. Instead of converging on obvious truths—the limited but real values of mask-wearing, the confidence that quack cures won’t solve the problem, the necessity of vigilant watchfulness—we are told every day that all empirical arguments are merely, well, masks for clan rivalry.

The results are already clear. The rush to reopen in the so-called red states was motivated partly by commercial impatience but also largely by a kind of irrational rage at the “élitist” social networks that depend on the diffusion of scientific expertise. If instructed that scientific medicine is one more opinion on the spectrum of political grievance, then social distancing and mask-wearing become, like gun control, an imposition on liberty.

Bottom line: the social connections that characterize bridging social capital rely upon trust and reciprocity–and reciprocity itself requires trust. The constant lies of the Trump Administration, the escalating propaganda of right-wing media sources and the dramatic upsurge in conspiracy theories have combined to dangerously erode our levels of public trust–and that trust is absolutely essential, not just to the effective control of a pandemic, but to all social functioning.

The erosion of bridging social capital may explain why so many Americans have retreated into the bonding comforts of their tribal affiliations.

But bonding social capital–nurturing and supportive as it can be- rests on an “us versus them” worldview, and that’s absolutely the last thing we need right now.

 

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.

Measles, Lies And Politics

In our politically polarized country, it’s tempting to see arguments about the efficacy of medical interventions like vaccines as examples of “non-political arguments.” True, the less-kind among us (I plead guilty) tend to view “anti-vax” parents as deranged left-wing versions of rightwing conspiracy theorists, or less judgmentally, arguably sane but credulous people who haven’t had access to accurate information. We don’t, however, see this particular controversy as a particularly political argument.

A recent, very thoughtful article in The New Yorker disagrees, calling the measles vaccine a “quintessentially political issue.”

Vaccination is a basic political issue, because it is the subject of community agreement. When a high-enough percentage of community members are immunized, a disease can be effectively vanquished. In epidemiological terms, this is known as “herd immunity,” which cannot be maintained below a certain threshold. When enough people reject the community agreement, they endanger the rest. Willfully unvaccinated adults and children can spread diseases to those who cannot be vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated, such as infants and people with a compromised immune system; these vulnerable populations would probably be safe in conditions of herd immunity. Vaccination and the refusal to vaccinate are political acts: individual decisions that affect others and the very ability of people to inhabit common spaces.

The author cites evidence that a majority of anti-vaxxers are educated white people who have ample access to credible public-health information and scientific studies about vaccination. Much like those who refuse to believe that climate change is real, they simply choose to reject the science; they choose not to believe the medical consensus. As Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times,

Their recklessness and the attendant re-emergence of measles aren’t just a public health crisis. They’re a public sanity one, emblematic of too many people’s willful disregard of evidence, proud suspicion of expertise and estrangement from reason.

The irrationality triggered by anti-vaccination propaganda is yet another example of the current raging conflict between facts and lies in America–a conflict exacerbated by social media. According to the author of the article in The New Yorker, there are even some reports that Russian trolls have been exploiting anti-vax fears as part of the Russian effort to use disinformation to splinter American public opinion.

What would cause well-educated parents to believe that the entire scientific and medical community is lying to them about the risks of vaccination?

The article attributes this reaction to current levels of public distrust–distrust of authority, of government, and especially of a complex, overly-expensive, profit-driven medical system that has few incentives for robust public-health interventions.

The solution to under-vaccination lies not in getting the right kind of information and messaging to the “vaccine-hesitant” but in changing the politics of health care. Political agreement is unlikely among partners who do not trust each other, and near impossible when one side is explicitly profiting from the other. The American health-care system is ill-suited to protect public health, because a profit-driven industry cannot serve as the guardian of public good.

It’s hard for people to trust the credibility of pharmaceutical companies when those companies are jacking up the price of insulin and other life-saving drugs.

The role of trust is something to consider as lawmakers debate the pros and cons of “Medicare-for-All” and  universal systems like those in place in most other modern countries.