Vanity, All Is Vanity. David Brooks Gets One Thing Right.

Today (emphasis mine):

Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

Or more aptly: rising distrust has more to do with vanity than anything else.

This nicely encapsulates an explanation I’ve been coming to for what’s the matter with Kansas – an explanation for the frantic, desperate-seeming, reality-denying, and self-contradictory rhetorical contortions that tea partiers and the Republican right constantly resort to.

They’re protecting, and stroking, their egos.

If America is exceptional, then they’re exceptional. If Sarah Palin isn’t exceptional, then they might not be — probably aren’t, in fact.

If government programs have been necessary to their success, their success might not be primarily a result of their own noble efforts.

If well-off people’s self-serving belief system results in less economic opportunity, they are hard-pressed to plausibly trumpet their clear-eyed pragmatism and serene virtue in empowering and enriching the deserving poor.

If the marketplace does not reliably reward personal merit, their place in life (however modest or grand), has little to do with their personal merit.

If CEO performance is largely a matter of luck (right company, right time), the heroical, captains-of-industry self-regard of those CEOs is a delusion.

It’s easy to add to this list. And it’s also easy to see why stoking this conflagration of self-regard — telling voters that “they are better than everything else around them” (notably government) — would be an excellent political strategy. (How do you know when a politician is lying?)

Combine this strategy with the world’s oldest political pander — “I’ll cut your taxes!” — and you have a pretty good explanation for thirty years of otherwise-inexplicable political ascendancy.

Hat tip: Ecclesiastes.

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.