Is the Problem a Lack of Trust, or Lack of Trustworthiness? Or, Neither?

There is an interesting implicit assumption common to these two articles.  The first piece, by Timur Kuran, contends that the leaders have increasingly become artificial and phoney, and generally lacking in “authenticity.”  The second piece, by Doug Rivers and David Brady echoes the finding among many that Trump’s rise (and presumably, Sanders too) is attributable to increasingly many people in both Democratic and Republican Parties feeling that the government is run by the few, for the few.  It is notable that, until the election of Barack Obama, the distrust was more common among the Democrats, but the distrust among the Republicans rose rapidly since 2008, overtaking the level among the Democrats, while the level of distrust among the Democrats did not!  (although that among the Republicans did fall a bit since the gridlock began in 2010.)

In both cases, the presumed problem is that people do not trust government.  For Kuran, the inauthenticity is the product of “politics as usual.”  As he puts it, “successful politicians rise by putting themselves in the service of powerful lobbies. They embrace many orthodoxies, if only for the freedom to modify others at the edges. They oversimplify knowingly and unabashedly.”  In the Rivers and Brady article, the problem is much more straightforward:  it is one of measurement, seen in the empirical data.  The authors do not really presume to offer an answer deeper than the trends in the numbers.

But politics has ALWAYS been the opaque process taking place behind the scenes.  There have always been covert and even corrupt deals taking place.  Powerful and concentrated interests have always wielded influence in politics disproportionate to their numbers. Practical and ambitious politicians have always embraced many orthodoxies.  They have ALWAYS oversimplified knowingly and unabashedly.  Not surprisingly, Congress was distrusted when it counted Nicholas Longworth, Abe Lincoln, or John Q. Adams among its members (paraphrasing a quote by Nicholas Longworth.)  But populist revolts threatening the foundations of party politics are a rare phenomenon, even if hardly a new.  Why this extreme distrust now, enough for so many to openly put their faith in a clownish billionaire with no experience in politics and an old obscure senator from Vermont who has refused to openly associate with party politics for decades?

A significant part of the problem is that, in fact, politicians are in fact less trustworthy than they are before.  Voters feel that politics is run for the few precisely because it is run for the few, much more than in the past.  Not only is the government much less involved in dispensing material benefits for many, the kind of benefits the governing coalitions offer their constituents are increasingly of symbolic variety:  multiculturalism and LGBT rights for the Democrats, religious liberty and gun rights for the Republicans.

I had touched upon before how technology makes it easy for firms to price-discriminate among consumers and extract as much surplus as possible, while trashing the consumers who happen to want inexpensive but reasonably quality goods with no frills.  The whole idea of price discrimination, indeed, is to offer consumers goods with (cheap) frills in return for much higher price–and as such, no frills consumers are unwelcome as they yield little profit for the firms.  Indeed, given increasing returns to scale, firms actively drive out such consumers because they are more trouble than they worth to their bottom line, in a manner befitting Bthe ertold Brecht poem.  The same logic applies to the politics of symbols and identities:  identifying with a distinct sociocultural group and successfully appealing to their collective identity provides the politicians with a variant of the “cheap frills” utilized by price-discriminating firms.  Without having to spend time, effort, and money on costly programs that dispense real material benefits to the voters, politicians can capture an entire demographic segment if they can successfully play the symbolic politics.

But can anyone play the symbolic politics game, all the time?  As a friend of mine noted (who has to go anonymous, because, ahem, this is an anonymous blog), in transactional politics, where there are significant material benefits being dispensed (and the benefits themselves are the point of the transaction) trust is not especially important.  If the congressman got the money in the budget for a bridge, the proof is in that bridge.  If the congresswoman resolved grandma’s issues with the Social Security Administration, the proof is in the check, or whatever the problem was.  If Hillary Clinton appeals to LGBT community, what is the “proof”?  (NB:  This is not to say that symbolic politics are inherently without material consequences–gay marriage or rights of religious medical institutions do have consequences that are more than symbolic, but it is true that in many if not instances, symbolic politics draw on, well, symbols rather than substance.  Even when there is a putative material issue, e.g. reparations for slavery, there is no realistic expectation that the reparation, even if there will be any, will be no more than “nominal,” as was the case with that for Japanese American internees during World War II–a symbolic recognition that a grave injustice was done rather than a transfer of significant money.)  That proof has to be found in “authenticity,” whatever that means.  In many cases, however, politicians fail the authenticity test:  they are trying to be authentic to too many disparate groups, they are skimping on homework, or they just lack credibility.  So they will issue public statements that will completely undermine their credibility, as has been taking place with Hilary Clinton’s problematic praise of late Nancy Reagan’s stance on HIV.  The increasing weight of symbolic politics, itself the product of the politicians steadily becoming “too cheap” to spend money on real material benefits, then, would seem to account for much of the erosion in authenticity and trust:  they are trying to get by simply by insisting that they should be trusted without showing the voters the money, or at least a promissory note.  Naturally, votes grow skeptical and untrusting.

I had noticed a fascinating article on why Trump has such success with evangelicals, despite being the epitome of everything that they would distrust.  The short version of the answer is that even the evangelicals have material interests too and they want to see someone who can actually do something about them, not just offer them solidarity based on supposedly shared values.  If you have real problems, you want the guy with the gun on your side, not the one with kind words, although if the guy with the gun has kind words, too, that would be nicer.

The crisis of authenticity and trust in American politics (probably everywhere), then, is once again that politicians have gotten too cheap with and overdrawn on their credit. Voters are increasingly tired of taking the politicians  on their word and are increasingly demanding that they offer them something more “substantial.”  This is taking place on top of the politicians having already squeezed too much of their monopoly over the agenda power and the collective inattention of most voters.  It is not simply that voters became necessarily more distrusting or politicians less trustworthy, although both may be true, but because political relationships became too virtual.


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