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Why Americans hate (some of) their elites

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"As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic," David Brooks muses, "their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower."

Brooks offers a few sociological hypotheses to explain this trend -- maybe our definition of talent is too narrow or maybe our elites have become more insulated or maybe our government is attempting too many large projects -- but none of them really work. Government, for instance, was far more ambitious 50 years ago than it is today. Barack Obama's health-care reform plan is peanuts compared with what Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman proposed.

Oddly for Brooks, however, this column operates entirely outside the realm of human agency. After all, doctors and the military are very trusted, and we've turned massive amounts of responsibility over to new elites, like those out of Silicon Valley, with nary a peep. So it's not simply that Americans hate elites. It's that they don't like certain institutions. And there's a perfectly plausible explanation for why.

The institutions they don't like are the institutions that have been the subject of well-organized and extremely costly attack campaigns for decades now. The Republican Party's platform is one long attack on government. Peter Beinart offers a good account of that here. The media are the target of organized assault from both the left and the right. The financial sector was doing just fine until the global economy crashed, which Brooks fails to mention.

There's more to it than just that, of course. For one thing, the government and the media are locked in an odd relationship in which the media spend most of their time telling people why they should hate the government and the government spends a chunk of its time managing the news such that people learn to hate the media. Brooks also makes some good points on the damage that excess transparency can do to an institution. But we can't talk about the changing public standing of the government and the media without at least mentioning the decades-long effort to effect those very changes.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 19, 2010; 2:12 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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Comments

We are faced with a lot of complexity and uncertainty at this point in our history, and we project our frustrations and hopes onto the government. We expect them to make sense of the world, either by doing more, doing less, or doing better.

Absolute partisanship (on every issue) makes for more uncertainty, as the parties' expressed worldviews diverge so much that it seems like no one really knows anything. More honest leadership would go a long way toward re-establishing a sense of competence in government.

Posted by: jduptonma | February 19, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Trust in "elites" would be higher if they actually did something to make people's lives better instead of working 24/7 to enrich themselves and maintain power. Pass healthcare reform. Pass financial reform. Make the tax system more progressive. Invest in education, the environment, new energy sources, etc. In short, policy matters.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | February 19, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

If only we hadn't desegregated the schools against the will of the South. Then that decades-long campaign against government would never have happened, and everything would still be great.

Posted by: eelvisberg | February 19, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

A couple points

First, the graph above doesn't really bear out the idea that the public has lost all THAT much faith in our government institutions. The ratings of the Executive branch pretty clearly track the popularity of the President himself. The big drop in the 2000's was a product of George W. Bush, not a sudden backlash against Liberty University-trained elitist being appointed Interior Department Undersecretaries. The institution that's really fallen in esteem is Congress.

Which brings me to my second point. There's no need to get into this whole "media vs. government" or "massive conservative critique" argument. Those are side roads. The fact is that people are faced with Congressmen making huge promises every 2 years, only to see an institution that is totally paralyzed. For many people it has been a hard, hard decade, and the institution filled with "elites" who go out every few years and tell everyone how they'll make their lives better has completely failed to produce any tangible benefits.

Posted by: NS12345 | February 19, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps the difference in trust has to do with results.

Government, unlike many professionals and big busines, is not exactly a raging success story. When people think of goverment, they think "ineffective" or "beaurocratic". That isn't just because people tell them the government is ineffective. Its because they witness it in everday life. The average person's interaction with government representatives (at the local DMV, the social security office, etc.) is VERY negative. Don't believe me? Ask people. When it comes to the big picture, they see mountains of goverment spending, and don't necessarily see the impact in their own lives.

Ezra and company (including some of the earlier commenters) answer that charge by saying "do something!". Which roughly translates to "massive new entitlements" and/or "massive new regulatory regimes". Pardon the public if they view such ideas with a sceptical eye.

After all, previous versions of the "massive new entitlements", such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, are well on their way to bankrupting the nation.

Other attempts at social engineering (e.g. Fannie, Freddie, the Fed) play critical roles in financial meltdowns (admittedly together with Wall Street, which was trying to turn all that social engineering into a massive profit, and instead fell flat on its face).

Why should the citizens of the country put their faith in the government elites?

Posted by: WEW72 | February 19, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

We shouldn't yearn for the "good ol' days" of the 1950s when everyone trusted the media and everyone trusted the government. It's not because those organizations did a better job back then -- it's because people were blissfully ignorant in their absolute respect for those in authority. And let's be frank: anyone that understands history knows that was not always deserved back then. I'll take today with all its warts over "Pleasantville" America.

Posted by: vvf2 | February 19, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

"Absolute partisanship (on every issue) makes for more uncertainty, as the parties' expressed worldviews diverge so much that it seems like no one really knows anything. More honest leadership would go a long way toward re-establishing a sense of competence in government."

I'm not sure about this. For one thing, while there is certainly a stark degree of party/partisan polarization, the level of ideological polarization is not necessarily as extreme as one would guess. It's not like the Democrats are running out the platform of a firm social democratic party, for instance; they're a centrist party as opposed to a right party, which translates into a closer ideological scheme.

But even so, shouldn't polarization have a clarifying effect in some sense? i.e. if the parties were more muddled citizens would receive more muddled party/ideological cues, which should lead to, in some sense, confusion. [This is largely the argument of Matthew Levendusky: http://www.springerlink.com/content/6h76637512000649/]

And, finally, what does more honesty mean here? And how would it work? By staking out claims about political facts and making more consistent normative claims about the role of government, then aren't partisans being very honest? I don't like Paul Ryan's budget plan, but it's a principled stand based on his understanding of the world. Again: what do you mean by honesty? Where do you see dishonesty in this picture?

Posted by: y2josh_us | February 19, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

I'm not going to click on the Brooks link, but this argument seems a bit haphazard:

"The institutions they don't like are the institutions that have been the subject of well-organized and extremely costly attack campaigns for decades now. The Republican Party's platform is one long attack on government. Peter Beinart offers a good account of that here. The media are the target of organized assault from both the left and the right. The financial sector was doing just fine until the global economy crashed, which Brooks fails to mention."

I agree that this is true, but it doesn't explain how Republicans can both attack government so viciously and yet be so head-over-heels in love with George W Bush or St. Reagan. One would think that Republicans would actually think less of anyone associated with that dreaded, blasphemous institution.

Same goes for media. Obviously, I don't despise all media because I read this blog. In fact, I often find myself pleasantly surprised when I see good reporting or analysis and try to encourage it as much as possible by reading/subscribing and leaving comments with smiley faces in them :). But on the aggregate level, I find that most of the establishment media is schlock that doesn't deserve my time or attention. If my disgust were mostly the result of "an organized assault", I wouldn't even bother supporting good media. I would eschew the institution altogether.

As for appreciating the elites in Silicon Valley, I didn't need a negative campaign to tell me that the way Buzz was rolled out was a very destructive moment for Google. And I don't need Apple telling me that Microsoft (I know, not in Silicon Valley, but whatever) products aren't helping me get the job done. I went to Apple products for specific reasons--among other things, I hate having popup messages and other interferences forced on me when I'm trying to accomplish something. I annihilated Buzz from my Google account for a similar reason. No marketing needed.

As the Beinart article indicated, Republicans' best line of attack on government comes from their own ability to muck it up. Useless and expensive wars, preventable deaths from hurricanes, and (as you mentioned) economic crises...those are their most valuable "costly attack campaigns". As for the media...well, you guys have Fred Hiatt to muck it up for you. And while he may occasionally get one or two things right, those things can't make up for all the rest. They just can't.

Also, pursuant to the Beinart article, I wish we'd start replacing the word "moderate" with the term "intellectually honest" when discussing our legislators. "Moderate" has essentially become synonymous with "self-serving" in my mind and bears no relation to a sincere willingness to negotiate in good faith in order to achieve a common purpose.

Posted by: slag | February 19, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

"I agree that this is true, but it doesn't explain how Republicans can both attack government so viciously and yet be so head-over-heels in love with George W Bush or St. Reagan. One would think that Republicans would actually think less of anyone associated with that dreaded, blasphemous institution."

that doesn't seem particularly difficult. Are we not supposed to hate the sin but love the sinner?

Posted by: y2josh_us | February 19, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

"The average person's interaction with government representatives (at the local DMV, the social security office, etc.) is VERY negative. Don't believe me? Ask people. When it comes to the big picture, they see mountains of goverment spending, and don't necessarily see the impact in their own lives."

I've had nothing but good service from my DMVs. Although the ugliness of the interiors (which, if addressed, you would complain about as "wasteful spending") does diminish the experience.

Also, certain people tend to only see government--and, really, any other support structure--when it doesn't work the way they want it to. When it does work well, they don't even notice it. This is a problem with the application, not with the organizational structure of government, itself. When I have a bad experience with Google or with AT&T, I don't run around complaining about BIG BUSINESS(!!!!) Just like I don't go running around complaining about BIG GOVERNMENT(!!!!) when I dislike the way it's being run. That's stupid and pointless.

What I do is either try to encourage the organizations in question to better suit my needs or I leave them and go somewhere else. That's what we mean when we say "do something!". It's pretty straightforward.

Posted by: slag | February 19, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

"that doesn't seem particularly difficult. Are we not supposed to hate the sin but love the sinner?

Posted by: y2josh_us | February 19, 2010 4:13 PM "

Are we still supposed to be doing that? I thought we were supposed to hate the sinner whether or not he's sinned because I'm pretty sure he will sin someday and besides he doesn't look all that American to me. But the times...they change too fast for me to keep up.

Posted by: slag | February 19, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Brooks' entire analysis is based on false premises. A whole bunch of other things have been happening at the same time that the composition of our "elites" has changed. Seriously. Stupid.

Posted by: zosima | February 19, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

"What I do is either try to encourage the organizations in question to better suit my needs or I leave them and go somewhere else. That's what we mean when we say "do something!". It's pretty straightforward."

You can leave a business, and find one you like. Most people don't consider emmigration a real option. So if you are not happy with your government, your only course of action is to sit there and stew about it, while you wait for the next election.

Thinking about it, that probably is the critical difference. If you don't like where you work (and the ecomony will let you), you can get a new job. If you don't like a business, you go send your patronage somewhere else. Heck, if you want to, you can start your own business and try to fill whatever void you think exists. So we have lots of freedom, and we have come to expect it.

When it comes to goverment, if you don't like what they are doing, to bad. You get to sit there and stew for a few years until the next election, and even then you are just hoping for the best.

While that has always been true with respect to government and politics, our freedom in everyday life is actually quite a bit different from what it was just a few decades ago. We live in an age of anything goes and instant gratification. How to you integrate those modern expectations with government? Should you?

Posted by: WEW72 | February 19, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

"You can leave a business, and find one you like. Most people don't consider emmigration a real option."

This is interesting. Most liberals I know do consider emigration a real option. One might think that difference in mindset is related to resources, but a lot of people I know were actually fairly poor (by American standards) when they went to work in other countries for a while. Some have stayed. Others have returned. No one I know well feels trapped in America. Maybe that is part of why we don't hate our government. Because we know it's just one of many and none of them are perfect so we do what we can with the one we choose. Just like we do with Google or AT&T (although I no longer choose AT&T).

"When it comes to goverment, if you don't like what they are doing, to bad. You get to sit there and stew for a few years until the next election, and even then you are just hoping for the best."

No...you can do something. You can write letters, make phone calls, protest, or even run for office, if you are so inclined.

"We live in an age of anything goes and instant gratification. How to you integrate those modern expectations with government? Should you? "

I'm often reluctant to accept a premise that one point in time is different in meaningful ways to any other point in time, but I do think that technology--in this case, the internet--has made a substantive impact on our recent culture. Was it more substantive than...say...the advent of the car or the airplane? In some ways, yes. And while I'm not willing to grant "anything goes" or "instant gratification", per se, I will concede that we have acquired some expectation of speedy resolutions to our problems. In that respect, I do expect government to keep up with the times as I do with any other institution.

No doubt, there's a stabilizing aspect of government that is absolutely essential to retain. But around the edges, I can think of no reason why--if I can solve my own problems faster than I could 10 years ago--government shouldn't be able to do the same. And in fact, it often does. We just don't notice because we're moving faster too. (Of course, the things that cost us the most money are often also the most stabilizing aspects of government--Defense, Social Security, Medicare, communications and transportation infrastructure, etc.)

Posted by: slag | February 19, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Ezra, for the graph. Incomplete, and ambiguous, but data. Brooks presented none. He simply asserts that we've lost trust in our elites. Whose faith, which elites, by how much? Your graph would seem to make the premise dubious. And even if true, shouldn't Brooks mention that republicans have dominated politics in this country for a generation, and a loss of trust, if it exists, may simply be a rational reponse to their failures.

Posted by: gVOR08 | February 19, 2010 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Brooks' analysis was interesting and thought provoking.

Klein's analysis is a bit less convincing. The data may also be misleading - the sharp upswing in the graph for 2009 has mediated quite a bit in 2010, as the press discovered that Obama didn't walk on water, and began to offer critical coverage.

As for the distrust of government and institutions, it's not just a concerted effort by a few concerns that has displaced the trust. It is also a lack of focus on the part of these institutions that part of their mission is public benefit, not just self-enrichment or perpetuation of individual careers. The institutions need to re-establish that the public good is one of their primary objectives, and that a positive impact on society is worthy of praise and reward.

We NEED transparency in government for the very reason that it provided checks on the way it is run. It's clear that both parties play the same partisan games, and that their objectives often overlook the needs of their constituents in favor of their short term political interests.

Posted by: postfan1 | February 20, 2010 5:43 AM | Report abuse

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