Yes, the covid epidemic is undermining trust in government . . . just not for the reason you may think
Disasters and threats tend to be politically unifying. Public approval of George W. Bush jumped after the 9/11 attacks, and trust in government increased. Donald Trump’s approval rating was highly stable due to increasing polarization, but even he enjoyed a small increase in approval at the start of the covid epidemic, and trust in government edged up slightly. With covid, however, the rally-around-the-flag effect was short-lived. For many Republicans covid policy under Biden has fueled distrust of politicians, public health officials, the efficacy of policies like masking, and even the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
An important question is why this has occurred. One possible answer is that trust has been frayed because officials have dissembled. This explanation is captured in the following exchange between Tyler Cowen and Zeynep Tufekci (quoted passage is from audience q and a at the end, my bold):
COWEN: From the iPad: are there situations where public health and transparency are in tension? And in those cases, should the public health authorities either lie to people or simply deliberately not tell them the full truth?
TUFEKCI: I just cannot imagine where we should not tell people the truth. Sometimes it gets complicated. For example, I do agree, for the most part, that the vaccinated are back at baseline risk, but that’s not the same as saying we should not have any indoor mask mandates for now. There’s been a crisis over that because people are taking it to mean the vaccinated are not safe, but that’s not true.
What you’re saying is that you can’t expect a business to differentially police. “Are you vaccinated? Are you not vaccinated?” We’re still vaccinating people, and we have the compromised people, and we have children under 12 who are not even eligible.
While we work through this for a couple more months, perhaps, it makes sense — especially if it’s in less ventilated space — just to keep it up. At that point, I wouldn’t say you should wear a mask if you’re vaccinated because you’re at risk. I would just say, “I think you’re fine, but the business can’t check your vaccination card. We don’t have something like that. This is how it’s got to be.”
Even this is not very complicated. Even if you did lie and get away with it, it would eventually come out. It’s 2021. There’s internet. There’s social media. The stuff would come out, and all you end up doing is creating less trust.
Political distrust is a huge problem; it may end up destroying American democracy. But it is not primarily caused by politicians or government officials dissembling or even by outright lying. Rather, people are distrustful because people they trust tell them to be distrustful. If people only heard positive stories about the FDA, they would trust the FDA. If people only heard positive stories about vaccines, they would trust vaccines. Conversely, if people constantly hear messages questioning the truthfulness of FDA and raising doubts about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, they will be skeptical of FDA and vaccines even if vaccine scientists and public officials are completely honest about the effectiveness and side effects of vaccines.
Yes, providing people with slanted information can undermine trust, but that it far from our biggest problem right now. Fox News, libertarian propaganda organizations, and many Republican politicians are actively using the pandemic to undermine trust in government. In a better world it might make sense to worry that being less than completely candid will undermine trust. In our world, worrying about this seems like replacing the batteries in your smoke alarm while your teenager plays with gasoline and matches in the basement.
“Fox News, libertarian propaganda organizations, and many Republican politicians are actively using the pandemic to undermine trust in government.”
You omitted to mention the pearl-clutchers who attack the voices of reason as hurting the fee-fees of the ignorant and who use “expert” as an epithet.
Sowing distrust in government is a political strategy. Somehow or another, every component of the government is to be distrusted, except, of course, for the politicians insisting that the government is to be distrusted. Them, you are supposed to trust.
Look at the Republican attempt to discredit the California recall election even before it was held. What if they had won? I’ve been starting to wonder if the Republicans know something I don’t. Maybe they are right, and all of those Republicans out there have been winning through out and out vote fraud. They see such fraud every day and feel it is the only way to win elections, surely, if a Democrat wins, it has to be through fraud.
i guess i must be one of the pearl clutchers. I agree with the main post …though I was not always sure I understood it, but then my own writing is sometimes hard to understand.
But..first Cowen is someone I learned to distrust a long time ago…
but, second, us pearl clutures learned to distrust people claiming expertise a long long time ago. i assume you think you are a voice of reason. And that we should just trust you because you say you are. You might read your comment on the last post where you called me a liar for agreeing with you to see why I am not inclined to trust your reason.
The only thing that we learn here from our backbiting is how to bite back, which is an entirely useless waste of time for me. I cannot stop others from wasting their time thus, but I can stop myself from joining in. If someone wants to beat me, then they will need at least a very big stick. Besides, grown men look silly with their pants on fire.
ir’s my hair that’s on fire, not my pants. You are right of course. But it’s an addiction I can’t seem to break. Wasting precious time as we speak. Trouble is I am haunted by the idea that I am actually doing more good blogging than I would be by writing a book. Tells you how much good I think writing a book would do.
they trust “them” because “they” (formerly known as “them”) have won their trust by being cleverer than we are. i think “we” have lost their trust by biting on Cohen’s apple: “a little lie or less than the whole truth here or there in the cause of a greater Truth is merely good messaging”. I don’t think it much matters anymore. Once you have inflamed the mob you are not going to stop it by saying “can’t we all just get along,” or “let us reason together.”[Rodney King and Lyndon Johnson, respectively, for those too young to know.]
maybe we could have gotten away with little white lies if we had delivered on our promises, but beyond the fact that the forces agaisnt us..both natural or “historical” and political were too much for us, is the fact that “our” leaders are fundamentally dishonest too.
the difference between the Right and the Left is that the Right lies to us about what we should do, while the Left lies to us about what they do do. [by Left here I mean the establishment Democrats. The True Left does not lie to us so much as they lie to themselves.
Wow, that was spot on and funny at the same time.
oh, i have to go back and say it was Tufekci I was agreeing with. Kramer seems, I think, to be agreeing with Cohen, though I was not sure. “Sure the kid is playing with matches in the basement, but that doesn’t mean we should be worrying about the batteries in the smoke alarm.” ? ?
or, that means “we shouldn’t be worrying about the batteries”? well, maybe if we had worried about the batteries we might have caught the first whiff of smoke in time. or maybe if we had worried about the kid…
On the other hand, recent polling indicates people at large trust the Democrats more than the Republicans with respect to Covid policy and by a large margin. Trust and distrust seem to vary with the issue.
I know some Republicans that are large people and even they know better than to trust Republicans.
The Democratic Party road to hell is paved with good intentions whereas the Republican Party road to hell is an unpaved toll road. Or is that troll road?
In 2016 we learned that research on elections can be disrupted by systematic lying to pollsters. Is there any reason to believe that research on confidence in government would not be impacted by a similar bias in lying to pollsters?
There are plenty of reasons that polls should be suspect. Even if the calls were randomly selected, which they are not, then the answers are not random. A significant portion of polls whether solicited by phone call or mail do not get a response. If there is a bias to the non-responses (which there is) then there must also be a bias to the responses (the net of all polling contacts minus the non-response bias group). We get a lot of calls for all kinds of opinion pollsters, but mostly political opinion. We always hang up or trash the letter. There is an obvious bias in the pollsters because we are white upper income exurban homeowners that for one year subscribed to the National Review. We also subscribed to the New Republic for that same year, but I believe that National Review took because of our other demographic characteristics. BTW, we live next door to the VFW hall. Pollsters also shade their results by the manner in which polling questions are worded. If political campaigning were dealing drugs, then political polling would be the money launderer.
well, that’s true and funny enough too. Polls are at best a test to see how well your propaganda is working. It is by no means a measure of what people really believe or want, if they know themselves.
If you are betting on the election, polls might give you an idea what odds to give, but if we take polls as a guide to policy we are doomed if not damned.
You can change what people want simply by telling them what they want. Then it helps if you actually deliver on what they want, whether it is good for them or not. (Sometimes it is, or used to be.)