The Credibility Crisis of America’s Institutions
And there’s only one way out.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
The nation’s credibility crisis didn’t arrive overnight. It’s been coming down since the sixties. That was a time when 4 out of 5 Americans believed that they could trust the federal government.
These days it’s more like 1 out of 5.
Congress enjoys the trust of 1 in 10 Americans. The presidency, 4 in 10. (That’s up from 1 in 3 under Obama.) Around the same number trust the Supreme Court.
It’s not just political institutions.
Trust in the media is understandably low with only 1 in 4 trusting newspapers, and less than 1 in 5 trusting television news. Only 1 in 3 trust organized religion and the medical system, even fewer trust public schools, labor unions, banks, the criminal justice system, and big business.
America’s political crisis is really a collapse of trust in institutions. And that’s one thing that Republicans and Democrats agree on. The Republican solution is to restore confidence by decentralizing institutions while the Democrat solution is to restore confidence by expanding government.
When President Trump ran a successful presidential campaign based on a lack of confidence in government, the crisis that most elites and experts had avoided discussing, went national.
The Democrats, who had become the more institutional party, blamed the credibility crisis on FOX News, on fake news on Facebook, and on the Russians. Their proposals for protecting “democracy” from fake news by censoring social media were typical of totalitarian regimes trying to maintain control.
But FOX News was created in 1996. Facebook in 2004. While the latter date roughly coincides with the fall of trust in newspapers and television news from 1 in 3 to 1 in 4, most people didn’t trust the media even before the advent of FOX News or Facebook. Social media and conservative alternatives didn’t kill trust in media. They just piled more dirt on the coffin. There is no turning back the clock to Cronkite.
And there is no clearer way of validating conspiracy theories than by conspiring to suppress them.
Totalitarian regimes create artificial monopolies on narratives by controlling the news, but these monopolies only breed black markets in conspiracy theories. Totalitarian countries don’t inspire total faith, but total disbelief, even by government loyalists, in truth and facts. Every development is parsed for hidden agendas even when they don’t exist because no one really believes in anything anymore. Even the most implausible accusations gain traction because everything, except the official story, appears more plausible when there are no longer any norms of credibility, only extremes of outrage.
That should sound familiar.
Totalitarian governments appear externally omnipotent even while they are internally incompetent. The complete mismatch between their propaganda and their capabilities breeds an even deeper distrust.
Instead of the people believing that everything is fine even when the wheat harvests don’t come in, nuclear reactors melt down and caucuses collapse, they accept both the evidence of their own eyes that everything is a mess and the propaganda that says the authorities know what they’re doing, and combine them into conspiracy theories that assume competence and bad intentions.
It is only when people finally realize the true incompetence of the regime that revolutions take place.
When political elites insist on their institutional competence and on monopolizing narratives to protect that illusory competence, they generate the conspiracy theories that create the crises of credibility that they seek to fight by monopolizing narratives. Instead of bringing into being a belief in their greatness and goodness, the combination of their corruption, incompetence and propaganda convinces the public to constantly read between the lies and assume that their incompetence conceals deeper conspiracies.
The only way out of the cycle of propaganda and conspiracy theories is to stop the propaganda.
The credibility crisis reflects a profound disconnect between institutions and people. Propaganda is the means by which institutions try to manipulate people into following their agendas, rather than remaking their agendas to be relevant to the people they are meant to serve. As institutions grow detached from people, they talk at them, they propagandize, rather than listen to them, and challenge themselves.
That is the true source of the disconnect and the credibility crisis of the country’s institutions.
Institutions, as the Founding Fathers understood, derive their credibility from the people. Not the other way around. Tyrannies reverse this with cults of personality, collectivism, and tribalism. The American Left is trying all of these without ever having learned from history what these do to a nation’s spirit.
Every major Communist country has experimented with all three to utterly disastrous long-term effect.
America’s political system and frantic media pace make cults of personality into passing things. A decade after women were fainting at Obama speeches, he’s just another hack on the corporate lecture circuit. Americans are too selfish to make good collectivists and tribalism in a multicultural country leads to a boom in racism, racial nationalism, sanctioned discrimination, violence, and even genocide.
Stalin, despite not being Russian, could invoke Russian supremacy to justify Soviet dominance. The People’s Republic of China uses Han chauvinism to maintain its own ethnic empire. But America doesn’t have a racial majority that can be utilized that way and never will. Diversity pits minorities against the construct of a white oppressive majority through revisionist historical conspiracy theories like the 1619 Project an obvious updating of the class warfare of Das Kapital with black people as the working class.
But where Communist ethnic tribalism was a tool of social stability, diversity only disrupts and destroys. Tribalism causes people to overlook the abuses of the ruling class, but diversity’s diverse tribalisms only overlook abuses when they are directed at other groups and at the fading white majority. Its limited stability can only endure as long as a white majority does. Paradoxically, diversity requires a white majority to struggle against. Without that white majority, there is no axis of social stability to sustain it.
The American experiment is being destroyed by a radical movement that controls its leading institutions, but has never grasped the central crisis of the American Revolution which was not, as it now insists, about slavery, but about maintaining institutional credibility by building institutions around people.
That is what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had set out to do. That’s America.
The great leap from the Tea Party to the Declaration of Independence was the realization that the problem was not King George III, nor even the British monarchy, but the general principle that governments derive from the governed, and that their government violated that fundamental rule.
American government came to violate that rule as its elite institutions, first financial, then cultural, became distant from the people. The politics of big government was an expression of that distance. The growing distance between people and institutions created crises, fertile ground for radicalism, that tore apart the country, led to a series of domestic clashes, the most prominent of which was the Civil War, and paved the way for growing leftist dominance over American life in the next century and this one.
Progressive institutions began by reversing the Founders’ formula, governing without consent for their own good. Progressive figures and institutions could be brilliant and noble, they brought much that was great and beautiful into the national life, but they were the products of a chasm between the elites and the people, and when their work was done, that chasm lay between the institutions and the people.
The detachment of progressive institutions meant to reform people from the people they were reforming gave way to the takeover of those institutions by radicals and extremists who traded tribalism, class warfare, racial warfare, gender warfare, and other identity politics, for meaningful connections with other people. That’s why Identity politics didn’t restore institutional credibility. Each assertion of identity politics progress, e.g. the first black man, the first woman, had to be quickly undercut by the vision of an overwhelming oppressive majority on which diversity depended.
No matter how much institutional headway identity politics made, the institution could never become truly credible because diversity’s credibility had to be sustained by discrediting even its own institutions. The quotas and ideologies of identity politics did not make institutions meaningful to most people, including minorities, because these were a hybrid of elitist ideologies and local tribalism that appealed to few. This new activist ruling class, embodied by Obama, was a mule, a sterile hybrid of two dead ends. Its primacy in politics has radicalized the country without creating any meaningful progress.
After Obama, the credibility crisis became a runaway inferno consuming politics and culture. Culture wars haven’t created meaningful institutions. Anger is just another way of describing disconnection. The Overton window opening wider doesn’t indicate progress, as Obama insisted with his invocations of a right side of history, but anger and desperation at the failure of existing institutions and solutions.
A window that never shuts isn’t opening on Utopia, but on Armageddon. Societies don’t rage their way to stability. Radical anger at institutional failure just leads to worse institutions and worse failures. Institutions either represent the people or they represent targets for the people’s anger. Every failure to choose the former instead chooses the latter and its inevitable cycle of revolution and repression.
The Founding Fathers had found a way out of this cycle. They built a nation that escaped this prison. But we are living out this cycle now. Our political, cultural, and economic institutions are oppressive and alien entities that few Americans, of any political stripe, find credible. And our politics revolve around anti-establishment movements based on burning down these institutions, either to remove them on the Right or replace them with even more onerous institutions on the Left, because they don’t work for us.
The crisis is reaching its moment. It can’t be escaped without asking people what kind of institutions they want, instead of asking institutions what kind of people they want. Elites have been using institutions to ask themselves what kind of people they want for too long. And the inevitable answer that eventually comes to all elites is that what the people really want a world without their institutions.
After generations of reshaping society, of listening to its own experts envision the kind of people that would best serve their institutions, political, cultural, and economic, that is a hard answer to hear. But all that reshaping has alienated people, divided them, deprived them of agency, of meaning, and purpose. Vast fortunes have been spent, intentionally and unintentionally, on breaking the nation and its people.
When life has no meaning, then purpose is reclaimed with radicalism, and agency with anger.
Conservatives and leftists have two fundamentally different answers to the crisis of institutional credibility, to build bigger institutions, or allow people to be defined by the institutions they build.
The crisis of institutional credibility can only end when institutions relinquish control over people.
Slavery debilitates both slaves and enslavers, slaves lose their reason and enslavers rationalize all, both pursue cruelty and violence to seize or hold on to power, while losing the middle ground of morality. And when the dust settles, there are only broken lands, broken cultures, and broken people. That is true of Africa, the Soviet Union, or, increasingly, more and more parts of the United States of America.
There is only one solution to power. It is the solution that made King George III hail George Washington as the greatest man in the world. It is the only American solution. And that is to give up power.
George Washington did what King George III could not. He gave up power and trusted the people.
The institutions that dominate this nation have lost their credibility. They have corrupted the country and alienated its people. A great nation with purpose and meaning has been rotted by its ruling class. The institutional ruling class can cling to power at all costs, convinced, like George III, that the peasants would perish without their guidance, or they can follow George Washington and relinquish power.
In their place will rise smaller local institutions, those of the neighborhood and the community, free of the heavy hand of national regulation, through which the people of a wounded nation can rebuild.
If institutions instead go on consolidating power, then they will pass into the twilights of tyranny or anarchy. The mobs are already in the streets. Anger is already everywhere. The credibility of the institutions that control the country is lost. Fighting to protect them will destroy everything else.