Trust but verify. How do you trust when nothing but falsehoods come out of a man’s mouth? I’d like to know. How do you verify when malfeasance abounds in such colossal terms that it boggles the mind?
The era of “big data” is also the era of “leaks”. Where traditional “sleaze” could topple a minister, several of the defining scandals of the past decade have been on a scale so vast that they exceed any individual’s responsibility. The Edward Snowdonof 2013, the leak of 2015 and the (revealing organised tax evasion) all involved the release of tens of thousands or even millions of documents. Paper-based bureaucracies never faced threats to their legitimacy on this scale.
The fact is, liberal democracy has transformed into illiberal democracy faster than you can say “fake news”. The gatekeeper has become the enabler. Trust has largely evaporated. “They’re all crooks!” It’s nearly impossible to verify who’s on the right side and who isn’t. The cynics abound.
A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Oscar Wilde
The term “illiberal democracy” is now frequently invoked to describe states such as Hungary under Viktor Orbán or Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In contrast to liberal democracy, this model of authoritarian populism targets the independence of the judiciary and the media, ostensibly on behalf of “the people”. William Davies: Why We Stopped Trusting Elites, The Guardian
Democracy has been a “blood sport” from the beginning. Agrarian/urban splits, isolationism versus globalism, immigration and xenophobia—these are not new arguments but go back to our founders.
… the two-party system emerged out of the competing visions, and personal hatreds, of the Federalists led by Hamilton and the Republicans led by Jefferson and Madison. Indeed, the fundamental issues of America’s first decade and the source of its vicious political divisiveness — the balance between federal and state power, the tension between government action and personal liberty, and the ambiguities in the Constitution on these and other crucial issues — remain a powerful source of contention today. Ben Heineman Jr., The Origins of Today’s Bitter Partisanship: The Founding Fathers
Nasty and divisive political rhetoric is not new nor is the “backstabbing” or “throwing under the bus” for “disloyalty” or bitter arguments that lead to ill-informed laws and policies.
The fevered competition broke relationships among the Founders. Adams and Jefferson, who had been strong friends during the revolution and later as diplomats in Europe, split bitterly (only to be reconciled years later in their old age). Hamilton and Madison, co-authors of The Federalist Papers, became mortal enemies. And, in the service of their partisan passions, each took actions judged harshly by history. Jefferson was disloyal and duplicitous to Washington (when Secretary of State) and to Adams (when Vice-President). He and Madison supported the violent newspapers of the time. And Hamilton was not only grossly disloyal to Adams (who was not sufficiently anti-Republican) but was a driving force beyond The Alien and Sedition Acts (attempting to suppress Republican speech) and a hare-brained scheme to raise a standing army to protect against a non-existent French invasion. (Heineman)
If you think crude and violent behavior is unique to the era of Trump, you would be wrong.
Politics were conducted like combat, too. Legislators frequently resorted to fisticuffs or dueling pistols. In one particularly memorable battle in the House of Representatives, Democratic-Republican Matthew Lyon ended up defending himself with a pair of fire tongs against Federalist Roger Griswold, who was beating him with a wooden cane. One of the inciting incidents of the Civil War itself came when Democratic Congressman Preston Brooks infamously beat Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts senseless with another cane. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was shot dead by Aaron Burr in the political duel that launched a thousand road companies, but if few other factional disputes had such box office value, they were a commonplace. John Swartwout, a Burr acolyte, was wounded twice in his duel with New York governor and near-president DeWitt Clinton, who finally walked away after the two men had fired five shots apiece at each other, and whose verdict on the whole matter was, “I wish it was your chief instead of you.” Kevin Baker, The Myth of Normal America: There Are No Good Old Days To Return To In U.S. Politics. The Truth About A Post-Trump Era.
What holds and constitutes American democracy is a body of myths. We each interpret these myths differently. What we believe to be true requires trust in the sources of our information: our political leaders and officials and in the newspapers, experts, and broadcasters that inform us. When that trust withers, so does democracy as hard as that may be to accept for true believers.
The idea that society could somehow decay or fail from internal flaws seems hard for the majority of American elites—leaders, scholars, and policymakers—to fathom. Instead, they unconsciously hold, as Huntington argued, an “underlying commitment to the theory of progress”—a Whig interpretation of history. As former President Obama liked to say (quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., who had paraphrased Theodore Parker), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Obama employed this quote to support a progressive determinism that makes many elites believe the United States is immune to the challenges that every other major civilization in history has faced in some form. There is little reflection on the downsides the current trajectory might bring. Seth D. Kaplan, How Do America’s Elites Stack Up, The American Interest
It is the Roman poet Juvenal of the second century AD to whom the phrase “bread and circuses” has been attributed. In a political context, the phrase means to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or public policy, but by diversion, distraction or by satisfying the most immediate or base requirements of a populace—by offering a palliative: for example food (bread) or entertainment (circuses). Wikipedia
When the public’s approval is generated by distraction rather than reality, liberal democracy is in danger of being replaced by illiberal democracy. The idea “everybody does it” or “he’s a jerk but he’s our jerk” focuses the public’s natural suspicion of elites on the establishment rather than the actual corruption of the truly corrupt.
Specious conspiracy theories are hard to rebut. Whereas it is impossible to conclusively prove that a politician is morally innocent or that a news report is undistorted, it is far easier to demonstrate the opposite. Scandals, leaks, whistleblowing and revelations of fraud all serve to confirm our worst suspicions. While trust relies on a leap of faith, distrust is supported by ever-mounting piles of evidence. William Davies: Why We Stopped Trusting Elites (The Guardian)
There is an undeniable tendency to believe what we want to believe, to listen to the media that is most representative of our own opinion—confirmation bias. We may understand the famous phrase of Pat Moynihan, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But, it is not easy to remain open-minded in the face of a powerful disinformation campaign especially when there is some truth mixed in as there is today. That uncomfortable truth is that:
… across a number of crucial areas of public life, the basic intuitions of populists have been repeatedly verified.
One of the great political riddles of recent years is that declining trust in “elites” is often encouraged and exploited by figures of far more dubious moral character – not to mention far greater wealth – than the technocrats and politicians being ousted. On the face of it, it would seem odd that a sense of “elite” corruption would play into the hands of hucksters and blaggards such as Donald Trump or Arron Banks. But the authority of these figures owes nothing to their moral character, and everything to their perceived willingness to blow the whistle on corrupt “insiders” dominating the state and media.
If a world where everyone has their own truth-tellers sounds dangerously like relativism, that’s because it is. But the roots of this new and often unsettling “regime of truth” don’t only lie with the rise of populism or the age of big data. Elites have largely failed to understand that this crisis is about trust rather than facts – which may be why they did not detect the rapid erosion of their own credibility.
Unless liberal institutions and their defenders are willing to reckon with their own inability to sustain trust, the events of the past decade will remain opaque to them. And unless those institutions can rediscover aspects of the original liberal impulse – to keep different domains of power separate, and put the disinterested pursuit of knowledge before the pursuit of profit – then the present trends will only intensify, and no quantity of facts will be sufficient to resist. Power and authority will accrue to a combination of decreasingly liberal states and digital platforms – interrupted only by the occasional outcry as whistles are blown and outrages exposed. (William Davies, The Guardian)