The Nation - February 26, 1996
The 'trust' crisis. Alexander Cockburn
Suddenly it's the "trust" crisis. Harvard, The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation began collectively sinking their teeth into the issue sometime last year, and in January the Post fired off a six-part series on the matter, decked out with front-page headlines such as "In America, Loss of Confidence Seeps Into All Institutions" and graphs about "public trust" with the trend lines all pointing down.
Cut our way through the thick underbrush of graphs and pizza-slice charts in the Post's series (Harvard and Kaiser will be issuing their independent summaries later on) and we find something simple: It's as if P.T. Barnum had set forth across the country to see if one was still being born every minute, got to the edge of the Midwest, looked around and then muttered to himself with drawn features: "No suckers!"
Of course, the Post's series didn't put it that way. The world there is that people don't trust government because we don't trust one another. "The reason our politics is behaving badly," the Post quotes Eric Uslaner of the University of Maryland as saying, "is because the whole country is behaving badly." In other words, it's our fault. (Dr. Uslaner is reverently billed as being "one of the first to identify the relationship between declining trust in human nature and attitudes toward politics and government.")
The Post launches its whole "waning trust" thesis on a couple of vignettes in part one of its series. In paragraph one Janie Drake, mother of three in Detroit, doesn't trust the neighborhood teenager who won't pull his pants up properly. In paragraph three, 18-year-old Lori Miller of Madison, Wisconsin, says she never knows who the next Jeffrey Dahmer might turn out to be. Drawing on this database, paragraph four says we've become "a nation of suspicious strangers" and this is why we've lost confidence in the federal government.
If Drake had told the Post she puts in three hours a week running errands for old folk and young Lori said she relied on her friends for emotional backup, we wouldn't have a story.
The Post apparently thinks it's good to trust government, as in the fifties, which, you may recall, was when government told trusting soldiers it was safe to march into atom test sites, and got doctors to inject children with radioactive materials, without their parents' consent, just to see what would happen.
The one thing the Post, Harvard, the Kaiser Family Foundation and all the hired professors can't face is that the correct premise for an independent citizenry is not to trust government, and that, as in every other period of America's history, government across the past thirty years has forfeited trust anyway.
During the Civil War eleven states announced drastic "no confidence" in the federal government. This was before Dr. Uslaner's time, but he might note that the people in these eleven states simultaneously exhibited great trust and confidence in one another.
There is one group the American people most definitely don't trust: the people who survey them, usually at 6:30 P.M. when they're sitting down to eat. People perform for surveys. They pretend to be Roseanne or Archie Bunker or Eddie Murphy or Beavis and Butt-head. They don't trust professors and pundits, who repay them by claiming they trust no one at all.