Trust and respect aren’t things someone (or something) holds in an infinite, uninterrupted supply. They’re gained and lost due to the actions of the entity holding this extremely liquid supply of trust. Oddly, some people — like Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza — seem to believe trust and respect should be given to certain “venerated institutions,” because to do otherwise is to surrender to something approaching nihilism.
Cillizza starts out with an obvious conclusion:
The FBI has long been an iconic institution in American life. After last week’s announcement by FBI Director James Comey that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server continues, it’s hard to see it staying that way.
The problem is more Comey’s than the FBI as a whole, but neither have done much over their histories to raise their levels of trust and respect. Cillizza notes that several other venerated institutions — from the Supreme Court to the presidency to public schools have all seen steady declines in public trust, according to polls.
This is to be expected. Trust is easy to lose, but much harder to earn. Our government institutions have done very little to maintain the level of trust and plenty to squander it. If that had been the end of it — an examination of continually-diminishing trust levels, it would have been fine.
But Cillizza somehow feels that failing to hand over trust and respect these institutions haven’t earned — or haven’t protected — is damaging to the fabric of society… and democracy itself.
Nothing has cropped up to replace these fallen idols. The foundational pieces of society — the things we always knew we could rely on — are no longer foundational. But, with nothing to replace them, we are left rootless, casting about for a new set of institutions on which we can rely. That casting around causes fear and anxiety — and sometimes even anger.
None of those emotions are conducive to a functioning, healthy democracy.
This is far more conducive to a functioning democracy than Cillizza thinks. This democracy (although actually a Constitutional republic, but pedantry) rose from the ashes of venerated, foundational pieces of society. The system was burned to the ground and rebuilt to better serve the constituents, rather than those governing them. What’s not conducive to a functioning, healthy democracy are government institutions continually and casually destroying the trust they once had. Venerated institutions shouldn’t always remain venerated. They should be questioned aggressively and held accountable for their actions.
Seriously, there’s a long list of “venerated institutions” once present in this “healthy, functioning democracy” that almost no one agrees should be granted the respect they once were. Like slavery. Or voting being limited to white males. Or aggressive land-grabs that displaced the native population when we weren’t actually just straight up killing them. Or how about the draft? It was once respected as well, but back-to-back failures in wars fought more against ideals than enemies turned it into a sick joke that further proved the notion that a supposed nation of equals was just more of the same old multi-tiered favoritism.
If the FBI doesn’t have our trust anymore, it’s because it threw it all away. Decades of shady, if not downright abusive, behavior preceded Comey’s “lone gunslinger” approach to heading the agency’s unofficial political warfare operations.
The decline in veneration for other institutions roughly tracks the increase in transparency and accountability. Freedom of information laws. Citizens with cellphones. A worldwide platform for instant dissemination of information. If trust is at an all-time low, it’s because more people are better informed than they ever have been in the history of this nation. And that’s exactly the sort of thing that keeps a democracy functioning and healthy.
[Final note: the original version of Cillizza’s post contained some rather hilarious inaccuracies about the FBI to buttress his arguments about the agency’s venerability. They’ve since been excised, but the supposed paragons of Bureau virtue included a fictional character and US Treasury agent who never worked for the FBI.]