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When we think of all the various things ailing our society today, we don’t often talk about the issue of trust, and its role in our degrading national fabric. And yet it is trust — or perhaps more accurately a lack of trust — that is at the center of everything from the rise of conspiracy theories, to the bitter populist rage spreading through the country.
Over the last couple of decades, it seems as though the American people trust virtually everything less than they used to. The elite of society — government, national media and academia — are undoubtedly the biggest examples of this wholesale loss of faith.
Government trust numbers do tend to be low, and our perceptions of how much trust we have in the institutions are often colored by our politics. Nonetheless, in an annual Gallup survey released this September, only 41 percent of respondents said they had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the federal government.
Interestingly, the same survey conducted at the height of the Watergate scandal in 1974 still showed that 51 percent of Americans trusted their government. In other words, Americans have less trust in their government today than they did during the biggest White House scandal in history.
Media, too, has experienced a precipitous decline in trust. In the same Gallup survey, only 41 percent of respondents indicated trust in the media. In the 1970s, the same categories showed that between 68 and 72 percent of people had some level of trust in the media.
Even academia is not immune from this widespread loss of trust. Between 2015 and 2018, American faith in higher education dropped from 57 percent to only 48 percent. That drop took place among all political affiliations in basically all categories.
But why? Why has public trust eroded so significantly in all of these institutions of elite society? Centers of power, communication and knowledge are now all trusted by a minority of Americans.
The potential answers to the question are varied and likely to inspire plenty of debate. But ultimately, I think it springs from their increasing lack of faith in us, and constant attempts to use their power to manipulate us.
Nowhere was that more apparent to me than the incredible story on herd immunity published in the New York Times on Christmas Eve. In the piece, Donald McNeil Jr. highlights the shifting standard cited by Dr. Anthony Fauci for the number of people required to get vaccinated against coronavirus before herd immunity will be achieved.
Fauci has long been quoted telling us that the magic number required is about 60 to 70 percent of people in this country being vaccinated. And yet, roughly a month ago he began to revise that number up to 70 or 75 percent. Then, two weeks ago, he told CNBC that the number was 75, 80 or 85 percent.
McNeil reached out to Fauci to ask what was going on with the moving goalposts. “When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent,” responded Fauci. “Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85. […] I think the real range is somewhere between 70 to 90 percent. But, I’m not going to say 90 percent.”
In other words, Fauci was intentionally manipulating us, as all health care professionals have been doing since the beginning of this pandemic. Fauci felt that by misleading us about herd immunity, he could help encourage more people to get vaccinated to meet a lower goal. Then, as public opinion evolved, he kept moving the bar to continually convince us that we should get vaccinated.
In the long history of public manipulations, this is certainly one with a laudable goal, but what Fauci doesn’t seem to understand is that their deliberate and obvious manipulations do nothing to increase confidence or compliance. Rather, by demonstrating a lack of trust in us, it is all we need to return the favor, and abandon trust of them.
To put it another way, when you are lied to, conned or used repeatedly by a person, do you really have any faith left in them? That’s what’s happened to us, on a much larger scale.
Don’t blame the faithless for their lack of faith, my friends. Blame the people who robbed them of the trust they used to have through their own actions.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.