People distrust government and experts because Republican politicians, conservative media, and libertarian ideologues tell them to
A lie can travel halfway around the world before truth can get its boots on
Anonymous (often attributed to Twain)
Trust in government has been declining in the United States for decades. Although skepticism about government can sometimes help us avoid policies that are harmful or unfair, low levels of trust are troubling for two reasons.
First, when voters are tempted to support harmful policies by mistake, low trust makes it difficult for government officials and policymakers to persuade voters that their favored policies are misguided. That is, low trust makes it difficult to bring expertise to bear in the policymaking process; it encourages political elites to pander to public opinion. In the context of the covid epidemic, low trust has made it difficult to persuade people that vaccines are safe and effective.
Second, low trust combined with polarization can undermine support for democratic political institutions and for the peaceful transfer of power through elections.
For both of these reasons, understanding where distrust comes from and what steps we can take to preserve or build trust is critically important.
Trust has both ideational causes (people say things that influence trust) and non-ideational causes (events like Watergate, changes in economic conditions, the 9/11 attack can influence trust). Here I want to focus on ideational causes of trust, using covid politics to illustrate my general thesis.
A common idea is that distrust is caused by the dishonest or confusing statements of politicians and public officials, and that trust could be preserved or restored if leaders were more careful and honest in their public statements.
No doubt there is some truth to this argument. Manipulative, deceptive, or confusing statements by public officials can negatively affect trust, and it is certainly possible to point to ways in which communications about covid could have been better. Take a well-known example. Early in the pandemic, public health officials downplayed the value of masks, perhaps to preserve supplies for medical workers who had a pressing need for personal protective equipment. As Zeynep Tufekci noted in a characteristically perceptive essay in the New York Times, comments by Fauci and others raised lots of questions to discerning readers. Tufekci identifies several: If masks are not effective, why preserve them for health care workers? If masks help prevent transmission, and asymptomatic transmission is a problem, shouldn’t everyone be using a mask? And as Tufekci says, the view that authorities are deliberately manipulating information can clearly undermine trust in official pronouncements. The right approach, she suggests, would have been to acknowledge that masks are helpful in preventing infection, but to ask people to voluntarily refrain from purchasing masks so that they would be available for health care workers.
This is quite reasonable advice, and better communication would always be welcome. At the same time, we should not be under any illusions. The most important cause of political distrust has been deliberate efforts to foment distrust by conservative elites. These efforts preceded the pandemic, but the pandemic has provided many opportunities for conservative media, libertarian ideologues, and Republican elected officials to raise doubts about the motives and competence of elected officials and scientists. And if conservative elites insist on sowing distrust for political or ideological gains, government officials will not be able to preserve trust by being scrupulously honest or choosing their words more carefully.
As any defense lawyer can tell you, your words can always be used against you. It’s useful to remember why this is so.
Sometimes people simply misspeak. They contradict themselves, or they express themselves differently on different occasions. You try giving a dozen interviews over the course of two days and see if you manage to avoid any misstatements or inconsistencies.
Even if public health officials never misspoke, and always told the truth, they would still be vulnerable to charges that they were being deceptive or manipulative. Every statement about a complicated subject like a pandemic is incomplete, and thus can be attacked as deceptive. Suppose an official says “covid vaccines are safe and effective”. This is true, and arguably the least misleading short statement that an official could make at a news conference. But there is a risk of adverse events, and we cannot rule out the possibility of long-run harms from vaccines that have not yet been identified. Conservatives intent on discrediting public officials can cite these possibilities to raise doubts about vaccines.
Maybe officials should try to avoid misleading people by emphasizing uncertainty. Being honest about uncertainty is generally good practice, especially when advice is likely to change as new information emerges. But emphasizing uncertainty can also backfire by making people unduly nervous about vaccines. And acknowledging uncertainty allows opponents to win arguments and create distrust by emphasizing the risk of adverse reactions or simply by shifting the burden of proof onto the authorities.
Another communication strategy would be to explain the existing evidence and the sources of uncertainty in detail. But this is simply impossible. There is no way to give non-experts a comprehensive overview of the evidence for the safety of vaccines or the effectiveness of masks or the benefits of using rapid tests that are less accurate than PCR tests. And what most people want is simple rules to follow, not a blizzard of details they cannot understand. Because we live in a democracy, at least for now, what people want matters.
Simple rules like “stay 6 feet apart” or “get vaccinated” are also essential because they are easy to communicate. They also make enforcement cheaper and less discretionary, which is relevant if we want to go beyond voluntary measures. But simple rules are always under- or over-inclusive. When I got vaccinated, I asked the nurse if I needed a second shot, given that I had covid. The nurse replied that everyone needs a second shot. I knew that this was not necessarily true, but what was the hospital supposed to do – teach the nurse to review the scientific literature with me in detail? She needed a simple rule to apply to answer patient questions, and that’s what the hospital administrators gave her.
The fact that simple rules are under- and over-inclusive means it is easy to foster outrage by pointing to specific cases that are not handled in what seems to be the optimal manner. Perhaps distancing rules should depend in a flexible way on ventilation or disease prevalence and other factors, but this is difficult to communicate to the public. Perhaps schools or airlines or hospitals should make exceptions to vaccine requirements for people with natural immunity, but this adds administrative complexity and probably increases the risk of breakthrough infections. We can argue about the best policy – this is completely legitimate – but rules are always imperfect, and imperfect rules can always be used as fodder by people intent on attributing bad motives or incompetence to policymakers.
Finally, the reasoning that justifies public health recommendations is not always based on conventional analysis of disease-specific observational or clinical trial data. Often it reflects general beliefs about disease transmission and practicality gleaned from experience with other diseases. The 6 foot distancing rule is largely based on this type of evidence rather than conventional, covid-specific data-based analysis. But this kind of loose, Bayesian-ish reasoning, despite its inevitability, is easy for conservative and libertarian ideologues to ridicule.
The upshot of all this is that even competent and honest public officials will often say things that can be interpreted as manipulative or deceptive even if they are acting in good faith and trying their best to communicate honestly. And this means that it will always be possible for anti-government ideologues to attack the motives and honesty of public officials. They have done this with gusto, and there is nothing that public health officials could have said or done to prevent this.
Let’s be clear: the main (ideational) cause of declining trust in government is deliberate efforts by Republican politicians, conservative media, and libertarian ideologues and their wealthy funders to get people to be distrustful of government. The libertarian right needs to think carefully about whether this is the road they want us to walk down together.