, ,

Two articles below show an interesting contrast in perceptions of public trust. Francis Fukuyama argues that we cannot deal with a pandemic effectively when trust in leaders and public institutions runs so low. He does refer to things one leader has done – our current president – to erode trust, but with that exception, he appears to believe our institutions, including public health institutions, merit our confidence and good faith. In fact, he treats faith in public institutions as an independent, durable good, citing Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt as exemplars who preserved traditions of solidarity and democratic cooperation during times when the country most needed strong, steady leadership.

Needless to say, I do not believe faith in public institutions depends on qualities of the person who occupies the White House. If you think you can apply great person theories of history to America’s story, or to American politics, you have a seriously skewed idea about what moves the country. People in this republic give their presidents a six-month honeymoon, and that is it. Every four years we try to behave ourselves from Inauguration Day till the Fourth of July, then we bring out our long blades. Of course, in Trump’s case, we missed his honeymoon, which might be one of many explanations for his supporters’ resolve.

We must not let top-down, autocratic measures from people who do not deserve our confidence remove our well-grounded faith in ourselves.

Noah Kim recognizes two things Fukuyama does not. First, he believes candor and selflessness among local leaders matters a great deal. Treat your constituents with respect. They will listen to you, believe you, and show you their respect in return. Thus Kim points to a second quality that promotes cohesion and allays fear during stressful times. For trust to exist, leaders must deserve it.

To state the matter otherwise, only trustworthy officials merit confidence from their constituents. If they do not merit confidence, because they lie, look out for themselves, favor their friends, or trample the weak, you will not have social resilience, or any of the qualities people need to get through hard times. You have instead alienation, resentment, fear, isolation, boredom, and a sense of defeat to go with all the other stresses disease or war can bring.

As I have suggested in several other articles, we must not let top-down, autocratic measures from people who do not deserve our confidence remove our well-grounded faith in ourselves. We have officials who want to control us, because they believe that way they can keep us safe. We already know how to stay safe. We do not need to live under anyone’s watchful eye to make sure we behave. Top-down control does not work even in the army, let alone in public health. The best armies are led from the bottom, not from the top. The same goes for resistance to a deadly pathogen. Leadership – and followership – has to develop locally.

Related articles

The Thing That Determines a Country’s Resistance to the Coronavirus, by Francis Fukuyama

How the 1918 Pandemic Frayed Social Bonds, by Noah Kim