Sometimes, stories that appear unrelated share common foundations and have cumulative effects, far more serious than any one does individually. Highlighting these common features tells us something profound about our society and its troubles. That’s the case with four stories over the past few days.
Finally, the ubiquitous Dr. Anthony Fauci, our nation’s top official for infectious diseases, told ABC News this past weekend that wearing masks should not be an individual choice. That statement goes beyond saying masks are desirable, based on public health data. It portends a new round of mandates. President Biden also indicated new, stricter rules are coming.
Is there any connection among these stories about police, murder, hypocrisy, and public health advice? Yes, and it is a connection that illuminates our country’s deepest problems.
The problem we face, beyond the specifics about crime, COVID, duplicity, and social division, is a palpable breakdown in public order at the same time the public has lost confidence in our government officials and the institutions they lead. The two meta-problems—the breakdown of order and erosion of public confidence—are deeply intertwined because we count on our leaders and institutions to give us reliable information, provide a stable environment (so each of us can go about our lives), and abide by the same rules we all do. Those are foundational elements of a peaceful, liberal, democratic society. Their attrition imperils that society and its governance.
Citizens are all too aware of the collapse of law and order in cities and on America’s southern border. They are aware, too, that the current administration and the mayors of most big cities are unwilling to speak honestly about the problems. They know that Vice President Kamala Harris’ exclusive focus on the “root causes” of migration from Central America is really a way of evading the painful question: Why won’t the Biden administration stop the unprecedented surge of illegal immigration or even speak candidly about it?
The danger and dishonesty come after decades of eroding trust in public officials and the institutions they lead. Polls in the early 1960s showed over 70% of the public believed public officials were telling the truth. Those numbers have declined steadily to less than 20%. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon got that ball rolling downhill, but it hasn’t stopped. The mistrust goes beyond public officials to include news media, social media, universities, corporations, unions, churches, and even civic organizations such as the Boy Scouts.
The public put aside those doubts, at least temporarily, when the COVID pandemic struck in February and March 2020. Almost everyone was willing to follow mask mandates and business closures. They were willing to let small children skip in-person learning and use their computers. But after more than a year of self-confinement and school closures, the public’s patience has run out.
So has the public’s confidence that health officials know what they are doing and are telling us the truth. This mistrust grew when people discovered the initial guidance not to wear masks was a deliberate lie. At the time, Fauci and his colleagues actually believed masks would help, but they feared that saying so would lead to a run on masks, leaving none for medical professionals. Instead of trusting the public and retailers like Amazon and Walgreen’s, they lied. In June 2020, Fauci explained his reasons: “We were concerned the public health community, and many people were saying this, were concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply. And we wanted to make sure that the people, namely, the health care workers, who were brave enough to put themselves in harm’s way, to take care of people who you know were infected with the coronavirus and the danger of them getting infected.”
However benign Fauci’s goal, the longer-term effects were pernicious. They were bound to be once the public discovered the deception. How could anyone trust his future statements at face value? He is paying that cost personally now that he is trying to reassure the public that he had nothing to do with funding the Wuhan virology lab’s gain-of-function research.
Donald Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election were even more corrosive of public trust. He has continued those attacks without providing independently verified evidence of widespread fraud. Recently, we learned that while he was still in office Trump crossed another bright line when he pressured the Justice Department to endorse his claims. “Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” he told Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, who refused his demand.
While it is perfectly appropriate to demand election integrity and review the vote count, it is deeply destructive to continue claiming the election was stolen without proof. It is even worse for a sitting president to do so. Among Trump’s most avid supporters, those claims undermine Biden’s legitimacy as president. For everyone else, Trump’s charges undermine his own claim that he knows the boundaries of constitutional behavior and tries to stay within them.
Smashing through those boundaries is exactly what House and Senate Democrats proposed when they suggested packing the Supreme Court, adding new states to the union (to give them a durable Senate majority), and eliminating the Senate’s filibuster rule. All are permissible within the Constitution’s formal rules, but all breach long-standing conventions that protect minority rights.
The public’s growing mistrust of senior officials, elected and appointed, overlaps with widespread doubts that those officials must follow the same rules as the rest of us. This common standard, and public confidence in it, is foundational to our constitutional democracy. Politicians, billionaires, and celebrities may be able to hire the best lawyers, but they are not supposed to be above the law itself.
That confidence depends on neutral procedures. When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of double murder, there was widespread disbelief, but the public still accepted the jury’s decision. Even if the decision was misguided, the process made it legitimate. Contrast that acceptance with the FBI and Department of Justice whitewashing Hillary Clinton’s reckless mishandling of classified data. No fair-minded person believed the investigation and charging decision was even-handed. Ordinary folks have languished in jail for far less serious violations, such as a submariner whose photographs inadvertently included classified equipment. Nobody else got the FBI director to write an exoneration before the central figure was even interviewed. Director James Comey then compounded his blunder by announcing he would not charge her (a decision that should have been made only by the Department of Justice) and, later, by holding a press conference that detailed Clinton’s wrongdoing without charging her, a flat violation not only of FBI standards but of centuries of precedent. It may have cost her the election.
Beyond those egregious violations, the FBI’s very different investigations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are why the public no longer believes the nation’s top law enforcement agency is politically neutral or even competent. Its leaders seem ready to kneecap their enemies and cover up their own agents’ wrongdoing.
During the Comey years, when these spying-and-leaking scandals emerged, most conservative commentators defended the rectitude of ordinary agents—the “99 percent who do a great job.” That defense is seldom heard these days. After all, lots of “great agents” must have known about their bosses’ misdeeds, yet none blew the whistle. They were just ordinary bureaucrats, protecting their pensions and promotions.
The key point here is that these problems—and they are serious—occur amid a long-term decline of trust in all our institutions, public and private. That problem goes well beyond the FBI’s bias, the hypocrisy by Muriel Bowser or Gavin Newsom, or the public mistrust in Anthony Fauci’s pronouncements and the CDC’s guidance. It goes beyond Trump’s dangerous game in questioning the election, and beyond surging crime and illegal immigration. Serious as those problems are, an even larger problem encompasses them: threats to our country’s stability are cumulating when the public no longer has confidence in the institutions meant to cope with them.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at [email protected].