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COLUMN LEFT/ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Trust: It's the Crisis du Jour

Every few years, someone needs to concoct something for us to worry about. Pullquote:

February 11, 1996|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn's latest book is "The Golden Age Is in Us, a Journal, 1987-94" (Verso)

Suddenly, it's the "trust" crisis. Big, important, national institutions like Harvard, the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation began collectively sinking their teeth into the matter sometime last year, and at the end of January, the Post fired off a six-part series decked out with doleful front-page headlines such as, "In America, Loss of Confidence Seeps Into All Institutions" and graphs about "public trust" with the trend lines all pointing down.

Every few years, big foundations and pundits with time on their hands get together and identify some virus sapping the nation's strength. In the mid-1970s, it was called "a crisis in democracy." Nelson Rockefeller paid scores of scholars to write papers on the topic. What it all boiled down to was something fairly simple: The elites were badly frightened by the 1960s uprisings and were asking basic questions such as, "Was democracy really the way to go?" As one troubled CEO put it in a meeting on the crisis in democracy, " 'One man, one vote' has undermined the power of business in all capitalist countries since World War II."

Cut your way through the thick underbrush of graphs and pizza-slice charts in the Post's series (Harvard and Kaiser will be firing off their independent summaries later on) and you find something simple: It's as if P.T. Barnum had set forth across the country to see if one was still being born every minute, got to the edge of the Midwest, looked around and then muttered to himself with drawn features, "No suckers!"

Of course, the Post's series didn't put it that way. Its message is that people don't trust government because we don't trust one another. It's all our fault. "The reason our politics is behaving badly," Eric Uslaner of the University of Maryland is quoted as saying, "is because the whole country is behaving badly." (Uslaner is reverently billed as being "one of the first to identify the relationship between declining trust in human nature and attitudes toward politics and government.")

The Post launches its whole waning trust thesis on a couple of vignettes in the first part of its series. In the opening paragraph, Janice Drake, a mother of three in Detroit, doesn't trust the neighborhood teenager who doesn't pull his pants up properly. Two paragraphs later, 18-year-old Lori Miller of Madison, Wis., says she never knows who the next Jeffrey Dahmer might turn out to be.

Drawing on this database, the next paragraph says we've become "a nation of suspicious strangers" and this is why we've lost confidence in the federal government.

If Janice Drake had told the Post she spends three hours a week running errands for old folks and young Lori had said she relied on her friends for emotional backup, we wouldn't have had a crisis.

The Post thinks it's good to trust the government, as in the golden 1950s, which you may recall was a time when government told trusting soldiers that it was safe to march into atomic test sites and when it got doctors to inject kids with radioactive materials without their parents' consent to see what would happen.

The one thing the Post, Harvard, the Kaiser Family Foundation and all the hired professors can't face is that the correct premise for an independent citizenry is not to trust government--not in ancient Athens, not in Washington today. Across the last 30 years, government has willfully forfeited such scant reservoirs of trust as might have remained.

During the Civil War, 11 states declared drastic "no confidence" in the federal government. This was before Uslaner's time, but he might note that the people in those 11 states simultaneously exhibited great trust and confidence in one another.

There is one group that the American people most definitely don't trust: the people who survey them, usually at 6:30 p.m. when they're sitting down to eat. People perform for surveys. They pretend to be Roseanne or Archie Bunker or Eddie Murphy or Beavis and Butthead. They don't trust professors and pundits, who then pay them back by claiming that they trust no one at all.

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