Disease Killing Democracy Is Distrust

Coming into the new year, it’s important to come to grips with the disease that most threatens American democracy – the almost universal mistrust of its governing institutions. The resentment and polarization in the society are symptoms of mistrust.

Distrust is the virus that popped into the minds of those who attacked the Capitol last January. He believed that Donald J. America’s electoral machinery was somehow rigged to steal the election from Trump.

Distrust is what drives millions of Americans to refuse COVID-19 vaccination, despite all the evidence.

The riots across the country following the killing of George Floyd fueled a deep well of distrust.

Overcoming distrust is not easy. Facts don’t work because unbelievers don’t believe they are facts. It didn’t matter that the counting of votes in Georgia and other states was led by Republicans, confirming the accuracy of the final tally. It doesn’t matter that the vaccination actually works to reduce the harm of the coronavirus, and that there is no ill effect on the vaccinated friends. It doesn’t make sense to “defy the police” activists that the majority of minority communities want an active police presence.

Political parties, as they are currently leading, are unlikely to offer a path away from mistrust and towards common ground. The more they create fear of extremists from the other side, the more money they raise. They profit by exaggerating awakened ideologies and violent right-wing fringes. Ditto for media: Conflict attracts attention, which attracts advertisers.

Once distrust reaches a critical mass, “confirmation bias” continues to reinforce it. Distrust not only hardens, but attracts more followers as it leads to institutional failures. The more things fail – schools don’t reopen, test kits are unavailable, homeless go away, politicians don’t deliver – the more people disbelieve. Pew recently found that 85 percent american Believes that American democracy needs major changes or needs to be reformed altogether.

America is at a dangerous juncture. Distrust drives people to extreme actions, as we saw in the Capitol invasion and the riots in the summer of 2020. For the first time in memory, serious observers are starting to talk about organized civil strife.

However, the road to faith is not a continuous battle against extremists on both sides. Telling people that they are wrong, or stupid, or selfish, is a thread of further polarization.

The American flag is flown at half-staff atop the US Capitol building.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

What is needed is a governing approach that engages Americans to help things work better. Many Americans feel powerless, as if ruled by a foreign power. They have nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of public choice, and what they see from Washington reinforces their belief that elections are conducted by Big Brother without respect for local beliefs and needs.

The new governing vision should re-empower Americans at all levels of responsibility to roll up their sleeves and use their common sense. Replace red tape with flexible frameworks that allow communities to do things their own way. Depressed Americans will then have a chance to make a difference. Instead of a mandate from a bureaucratic black box, Americans should have a clear vision for the officials who are actually making the decisions. Only then can democracy provide accountability to the voters.

Many, perhaps most, Americans would subscribe to the vision of a simpler framework activated by human responsibility. Left activists want accountability of the police and other officials. Right wing activists are angry with the mandate from above. Everyone wants a better school. Doctors and nurses need relief from endless red tape. The new governing framework will set goals and guiding principles, not determine how to conduct a classroom, or care for a patient. Clear lines of authority will hold people accountable for the work they do.

Nor does the new vision require a complex platform. It should adopt a key principle: simple structures energized by human responsibility. Let the people decide. Let others hold them accountable. Instead of a broad forum, independent commissions should be convened to recommend a new simplified framework, sector-wise. Congress can then vote the proposals up or down.

No party would lead such a movement, as most interest groups exist to maintain the status quo. Instead the parties will push for reforms of their choice. But reform never happens, except at the margins, and it is foolish to prune this red tape forest. It would take a thousand births to sort out this bureaucratic mess—150 million words of federal law and regulation alone. Reforms almost never succeed because the modern bureaucratic state is built on a flawed premise – that thick rulebooks should guide “the one right way” to make daily choices. Across America, doctors, teachers, small businesses and executives are trying to follow instructions that don’t make sense in special circumstances. It should be replaced, not repaired.

Americans feel overwhelmingly that our democracy needs to be overhauled. Let’s create a movement to do this. The current trench warfare is taking us nowhere except to uncover the relentless mistrust, public failure, and great promise of American democracy.

Philip K. Howard is the president of the Common Good. his latest book is try common sense,

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.