Recent articles by Francis Fukuyama and Noah Kim show an interesting contrast in perceptions of public trust. Fukuyama argues that we deal with a pandemic ineffectively when trust in leaders and public institutions runs so low. He acknowledges that our current president’s behavior erodes 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 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 country give their presidents a six-month honeymoon, and that is it. Every four years we try to behave ourselves from Inauguration Day until the Fourth of July, then we unsheath our long blades. In Trump’s case we missed our honeymoon, which may be one of many explanations for his supporters’ determination.
Candor and selflessness among local leaders matter a great deal.
Noah Kim, recalling the 1918-1920 pandemic, recognizes two things Fukuyama does not. First, he believes candor and selflessness among local leaders matter a great deal. Treat your constituents with respect. They will listen to you, believe you, and show you their respect in return. Kim’s second point extends the first: for trust to exist, leaders must deserve it. If they do, public trust promotes cohesion and allays fear during stressful times. If they do not, morale drops and disaster ensues. People cease to help one another.
Only trustworthy officials merit confidence from their constituents. If they do not merit confidence because they lie, look out for themselves, favor their friends, trample the weak, or ignore their jobs, social resilience dries up. You have instead alienation, resentment, fear, boredom, isolation, and a sense of defeat to go with all the other stresses disease or war can bring. You have none of the social qualities people need to endure hard times.
Leadership – and followership – must develop locally from the bottom up.
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 generals rely on their platoon leaders and junior officers to succeed. The same goes for resistance to a deadly pathogen. Leadership – and followership – must develop locally from the bottom up.