The Unraveling of America

America’s crisis of trust and the one candidate who gets it

Rebuilding social and political trust requires procedural reforms that don’t excite voters.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders standing behind podiums on the debate stage.
A reformist, overshadowed by a revolutionary.
 Win McNamee/Getty Images

The biggest problem facing US democracy did not come up at the Democratic debate in Charleston this week. It hasn’t really been discussed in the election at all. But it lurks behind all the more specific issues, an unwelcome presence no one quite wants to acknowledge.

It is simply this: The US is in a period of declining social and political trust. Americans increasingly think the system is rigged and that their fellow citizens don’t necessarily share their basic values and presumptions. This makes them strongly disinclined to invest their hopes in political promises of common good.

Everything progressives want — from getting humane policies passed to executing on them effectively — requires a foundation of social and political trust. The erosion of that foundation must be reversed if the left ever hopes to lead the country through big, transformative changes.

All the candidates sense the distrust and disengagement on some level. But the candidate most preoccupied with it, with the most developed plans to address it, is Elizabeth Warren.

Senator Elizabeth Warren hugging a supporter.
Warren hugs a supporter in South Carolina.
 Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It doesn’t seem to be helping her much, politically speaking. She’s has fallen back in the polls and faces rough sledding on Super Tuesday. But whatever the fate of her candidacy, her focus on rebuilding trust is something that the eventual winner should adopt as their own. Without trust, nothing else is possible.

The social trust doom loop

Scholar Kevin Vallier has done a helpful roundup of the political science literature on social and political trust.

He notes that they are distinct phenomena. Political trust is just what it sounds like: trust in the basic institutions of public life; in democracies like the US, that means in democracy itself. The causes of political trust are fairly well understood. They include things like economic growth, income equality, rule of law, and citizen participation.

But what causes the things that yield political trust? For that, a society needs something deeper; it needs social trust. Vallier defines it this way:

Social trust, often referred to as “generalized” trust, is trust in strangers, persons within one’s society with whom one has little personal familiarity. Social trust can thus be understood broadly as trust in society. But trust to do what? Social trust is trust that persons will abide by social norms, publicly recognized, shared social rules that people both in fact expect one another to follow and think that everyone morally ought to follow.

Put colloquially, social trust is the feeling that we’re all in this together (where “we” is a polity, like the citizens of a nation). We’re part of a meaningful common identity; we share basic values and expectations; we are, in some important way, knowable and predictable to one another.

Social trust creates a stable climate in which people feel secure in their plans and expectations. Without it, nothing — not even the most clever policies — can work.

President Donald Trump holds up a copy of the Washington Post with the headline “Trump acquitted.”
Not exactly a trust-building exercise.
 Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem with social and political trust. To create an environment in which they thrive, you need rule of law and effectively executed government policies that redound to broad public benefit. But to build an effective government and implement those policies in the first place, you need social trust. Just as you need money to make money, you need social trust to make social trust.

When things are going well, a self-reinforcing cycle emerges: better governance and policy lead to more trust, which leads to better governance and policy.

But when things are going poorly, the opposite dynamic takes hold: Without trust, good governance and policy become difficult, and without good governance and policy, it’s difficult to create social trust.

That is how societies come apart. And that is the doom loop the US now finds itself in.

As I have recounted at great length in other posts, over the last several decades, conservatives have waged war on social and political trust, calling into question the fairness and independence of almost every major US institution from journalism to academia to science. They have created parallel institutions of their own, meant to support their factional interests. And they have relentlessly cast “libs” as an enemy within — an alien, hostile, and ultimately illegitimate force.

As a result, a large faction of the country has descended into paranoia and conspiracy theories, fighting intensely against the basic rules, norms, and post-war assumptions of American life. And because that faction has successfully rendered all political fights — even fights over basic facts — as vicious, zero-sum partisan struggles, another large faction of the country has simply tuned out, coming to regard politics and public life generally as corrupt and fruitless. Americans’ trust in their institutions and in one another is at record lows.

This serves the right’s purposes. If all common identity is dissolved, all transpartisan facts and norms, then there is no longer any ability to communicate across factional lines. What remains is raw power struggle. That is the milieu in which an identitarian like Donald Trump feels at home; witness his purging of public servants he deems insufficiently loyal.

But it works against the left’s purposes. The left needs for voters to believe that effective, responsive governance is possible — that we can, in fact, have nice things. The left needs social and political trust. Without them, collective action for collective benefit, the left’s stock in trade, becomes impossible.

This is the left’s challenge in the US: how to break out of the doom loop and get on a trajectory of better governance and rising trust.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Senator Bernie Sanders waving to the debate crowd.
Who to trust?
 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Different theories of how to generate social trust

Every Democratic candidate senses on some level that trust is low and is addressing the problem with some chicken and some egg — some building of the social trust necessary to pass good policy, some passing of policies necessary to build social trust.

In the “moderate” lane — where Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg are battling it out — the effort to address trust is largely affective. The moderate promises a return to normalcy, when everything didn’t feel so tense and volatile. The moderate promises not to be rigid or ideological, to compromise and be constructive, but above all to provide a steady, familiar, predictable hand on the tiller. There might not be any big revolution, but there will be slow, steady progress, not this vertiginous lurching about.

The problem with the moderate approach is that the system really is rigged. It is rigged against Democratic reformers through the electoral college, the overrepresentation of rural areas in the Senate, gerrymandering from 2010, unlimited money in politics, and the filibuster, among other things. And it is rigged in favor of the wealthy and powerful, with white-collar criminal enforcement declining, agencies like the IRS being defunded and defanged, and now Trump pardoning random criminals who get to him through Fox.

None of that will change with “bipartisan outreach” or a sensible Midwestern temperament. Republicans have become steadily more intractable and unhinged since 2010 and there’s no reason to think that will change any time soon. Just as Obama was confined to executive action for the last six years of his presidency, so too will any new Democratic president be barred from legislation if Republicans hold either house of Congress in 2020. There is no normalcy to return to. Four more years of fruitless partisan squabbling will do nothing to restore trust.

The other, “left” lane is occupied by Warren and Sanders, who both promise, in Warren’s familiar phrase, “big structural change.” They are the only two candidates proposing changes equal to the moment.

There is not a huge tangible difference to be found in their legislative goals, certainly relative to what either is likely to be able to accomplish. Warren’s regulated capitalism and Sanders’s democratic socialism often blur together in policy terms: They both seek universal health care, higher wages, stronger unions, canceled student debt plus free college, and higher taxes on the wealthy. They both want something more like Denmark’s system, whatever label is put on it.

But there are interesting differences in their rhetoric, focus, and theories of change.

The best explanation I’ve seen of those differences is an essay by Will Wilkinson, who notes that Sanders typically avoids or waves aside questions about procedure or structural impediments. Sanders is focused — has been for decades — on outcomes. Health care. Decent jobs and housing. Cleaner air and water.

Sanders’s theory of change is not centered on any set of procedural arguments. (To the extent he makes any, they are dubious, like his ludicrous promise to pass both Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal through budget reconciliation, which is absolutely not going to happen.) It is instead a story of revolution, a movement of people in the streets, sweeping aside institutional impediments and rebuilding systems from the bottom up.

As Wilkinson says, in this one way, Sanders’s appeal is similar to Trump’s. Trump didn’t make any complicated procedural arguments either. He just said that the system is corrupt and he would blow the whole thing up. “Donald Trump never sounds like he might be a guy from HR about to lead you through a folder of ‘onboarding’ paperwork. And neither does Bernie Sanders,” Wilkinson writes. “Bernie’s simply on your side against the entitled rich pricks who make your life a pain, and he’s going to make it easier.”

It is precisely this populist appeal that leads many Sanders fans to believe that he will be able to peel off some of the working-class voters who drifted to Trump.

I have little confidence in this theory of change. Sanders is winning, but there is no sign yet of a massive, institution-crushing working-class movement. And if it doesn’t show up — if, instead, recent trends hold and the nation remains narrowly divided along partisan lines — a Sanders presidency would face the same thicket of structural hurdles that any Democratic presidency would.

It may be that he has a plan to navigate those impediments from the inside, that he has some vision of the personnel he would put in place, the rules he would change, and the levers available to him to maneuver within a tight space. But that kind of bureaucratic savvy hasn’t been his reputation or his role in his long career, it hasn’t played much of a part in his campaign, and the personnel and policy choices he has made so far speak more to ideological fealty than a pragmatic dedication to reform. (See Matt Yglesias for the contrary case that Sanders would in fact be a pragmatic and flexible leader.)

Senator Bernie Sanders in front of a large American flag speaking to a crowd holding “Bernie” signs.
Not him, them.
 JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Warren’s plans differ from Sanders’s revolution

Warren shares many elements of Sanders’s populist rhetoric. She, too, is focused on how the rich and powerful have rigged the system against ordinary people. But she does not propose to blow the system up or sweep it aside. She proposes to fix it. She (legendarily) has a plan for that, a clear sense of which institutions are broken, what new institutions need to be created, and what kind of people she wants running them. As Ezra Klein documents, her entire career in politics has been focused on battling for better institutions and better personnel.

Warren’s history, experience, and ideology give her progressive populism an importantly different character from Sanders’s. Wilkinson captures it well:

Because the American republic is, in fact, in the midst of a spiraling crisis of corruption, there is more than a whiff of radicalism in a reform agenda focused on rooting out graft and restoring popular sovereignty. But Warren’s program is animated by earnest devotion to sturdy procedural ideals — fair elections, the rule of law, equitable and responsive political representation, and clean public administration — not left-wing ideology. It aims to realize a homely republican vision of America in which equal democratic citizens of every gender, color, and creed can vote their way to a system that gives everybody a fair shot at a sound education and a decent wage sufficient to raise a family in a comfortable home without becoming indentured to creditors or wrecked by the vicissitudes of capitalist dislocation.

As Warren used to say frequently, she is a “capitalist to her bones.” She believes in the generative power of markets; she just believes they need to be operated transparently and fairly, with everyone protected from immiseration and offered opportunities for full participation. She wants well-regulated capitalism with a healthy welfare state — which is how the Danes themselves think of their system.

This is why, unlike Sanders, she explicitly cites her anti-corruption reform agenda as her first and top priority if she becomes president. It’s why she, unlike Sanders, supports getting rid of the filibuster. For her, procedural reforms are not an afterthought, but a vital part of the agenda in and of themselves, because they are the only reliable way to generate the trust needed to support the rest of the agenda and progress beyond it.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Just thinking about bipartisan outreach makes him giggle.
 Alex Wong/Getty Images

Warren is on the right track, substantively

In Vallier’s literature review, he notes that many of the features of a society that might be thought to generate social trust — economic growth, low income inequality — are in fact just as plausibly seen as its effects, features of society that require trust to develop at all. At the very least, the lines of causation are unclear.

He cites only one exception:

There is one sustaining institutional cause of social trust about which we can be relatively confident. The evidence clearly shows a close connection between higher levels of social trust, lower levels of corruption in the legal system, and other indicators of reliable adherence to the rule of law.

I cannot think of a time in my life when this was more true than it is today. We live in an age of rampant elite lawlessness. Young voters came up witnessing the theft of the 2000 presidential election, the Iraq War, the 2008 recession, nationwide Republican efforts at voter suppression, and, well, Trump. And in all that time, none of the powerful people (mostly wealthy white men) who have dragged the US into one crisis after another have paid the slightest price.

Voters have noticed. They take the promises of politicians less and less seriously. Warren has correctly intuited that the only way to begin rebuilding trust is to impose some accountability, to make legal, financial, and political systems work the way they are supposed to, fairly and for everyone’s benefit. These are the things that would, in practice, begin shaping a citizenry more open to bold progressive policy.

For evidence, witness the Scandinavian countries that Sanders, Warren, and other leftists (hi there) are so fond of citing. What sets them apart from Cuba, Venezuela, and the other negative examples of socialist governments gone awry?

It is not their grand goals or their grand promises. All leftist governments tell citizens that they will get health care and homes and better wages. They all tell the story of the working-class against elites. They all use the same populist rhetoric.

What sets Denmark, for example, apart is that its government works. Its administration is effective. It builds infrastructure at a reasonable cost. Citizens play a meaningful role in government and corporate decisions. The public’s preferences are reflected in policy.

This gives Danes a base level of trust that they are part of a meaningful collective identity, a collective project, and that the government is working for all of them. They pay high levels of taxes happily because they see and experience the results of those taxes in responsive government and good health care, good schools, good working conditions, and good public transportation. (Though it’s worth noting that Denmark, like other countries run by humans, has not solved the most difficult problems.)

Denmark Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
 NIELS CHRISTIAN VILMANN/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

If the US really wants to move toward high-functioning Danish-style social democracy (whatever candidates call it), it can’t simply emulate Denmark’s policy outcomes. As things stand, Americans do not trust the federal government enough to happily hand it more control and higher taxes. On the contrary, they tend to get angry about such things.

Danish-style outcomes require Danish-style trust, and that requires rule of law, elite accountability, and competent administration. Warren is the candidate most fixated on the kinds of reforms that could help generate that trust.

(Side note: It has been interesting to watch Pete Buttigieg’s evolution on this. When he entered the race in the liberal lane, he was vocal about putting procedural reforms first, correctly noting that bold policy is impossible without them. But since he moved into the moderate lane, he has favored more affective “not too hot, not too cold” aphorisms, which is apparently what older Democrats want.)

Warren is on the wrong track, politically

Warren’s basic problem is that the kind of procedural and bureaucratic reforms that would have the best results in building trust over the long term are not particularly … sexy. “Reforming the filibuster” is never going to catch on like “free college.”

This is a perpetual problem in US politics. Just ask the lonely, stalwart champions of campaign finance reform, who have labored in vain for decades to push their issue to the front of the priority stack. Almost every progressive politician agrees on campaign finance reform, at least when asked. Of course there’s too much money in politics, etc. But no politician wins by making it their headline issue. No politician benefits from putting it in front of health care, or small business tax credits, or any of the many policies that more visibly and directly benefit constituents.

It is notoriously difficult to make procedural issues catch fire, to get votes with them. And now, with populist sentiment so prevalent, it is more difficult than ever. As Wilkinson notes, the language of rules and procedures is the language of the managerial class — and it is the managerial class, more than the distant wealthy ownership class, that makes workers’ lives miserable on a day-to-day basis.

Workers already find their lives strangled by the byzantine complexity of health care insurance and 401(k)s. It is easy for Warren’s bullet-pointed agenda to sound like another visiting technocratic consultant arrived with more plans and paperwork.

The populist impulse is to burn all that down, to sweep it away. That is what Sanders and Trump both promise, albeit with diametrically opposed intentions.

Warren has tried to please both progressives and pragmatists, but the overlap may not be as large as she hoped.

democratic primary chances
538’s Democratic primary tracker. 

Two great tastes that may not taste great together

Warren’s appeal to a certain sort of politically engaged Democrat is that she combines bold progressive goals with extensive experience navigating US institutions and detailed plans for bureaucratic reform. It’s the best of both worlds, ambitious and pragmatic.

But there may not be all that many Democratic primary voters who want those two things together. It may be that the Democrats who want ambition don’t want pragmatism and the ones who claim to want pragmatism don’t want ambition.

That dilemma was illustrated perfectly by the episode that is said to have knocked Warren out of her early frontrunner status. Pressured to explain how she would pass Medicare-for-all, her campaign developed a phased plan that would create a public option through budget reconciliation, reform the filibuster, and bring a more comprehensive, fully paid-for bill to Congress later in her first term.

For her efforts, she took fire from both sides. It turns out most of the primary voters who want Medicare-for-all want it immediately and view any concessions to political reality as ideological betrayal. And it turns out most of the Very Serious People in DC who claim to want pragmatism (for Warren to “show her work”) really just want austerity, to be told that we can’t have nice things, a message that US elites have come to see as synonymous with realism.

It’s difficult to see the path forward for Warren. She will never out-ambition Sanders. Wilkinson thinks that she ought to marry her procedural reformism to a more putatively moderate substantive agenda to try to capture the role as the safe alternative to Sanders. But one class of voters that does see the potential of Warren’s agenda is the financial and tech elite who are its target. In many ways, they see Warren as a greater threat than Sanders, as she is laser-focused on the systems that undergird their privilege. It is doubtful that the money brokers of the party would embrace her even if she crafted a more moderate message.

And let’s not forget, unlike bright young white men like Pete, women don’t get second chances. They are not forgiven if they change their minds or adjust their messages. They are cast as “inauthentic,” deceitful schemers. It remains an easy stereotype to attach to women, as the ludicrous “Pocahontas” episode illustrated. (There is, unsurprisingly, misogyny infused throughout the media’s treatment of Warren.)

It is probably too late for Warren to substantially change a message that she has been consistently delivering for well over a decade now. She is a reformer, a fighter, someone who wants to make the systems of US finance, politics, and commerce work for ordinary people. She’s been grappling with those systems her whole adult life and knows how and where to apply pressure to get results. She wants to create systems in which voters can trust and reward their trust with better health care, better wages, and better lives. All she can do now is make her case, organize, and hope for the best.

If Sanders does win the primary, as looks increasingly likely, Democrats will work to get him elected. To do otherwise would be demented.

But over my life following politics, I have seen wave after wave of revolutionary zeal crash on the shores of DC and recede defeated. If Sanders is elected and runs into the same insurmountable wall of institutional resistance that choked Obama’s presidency, if his promises of revolution come to nothing and his term is consumed by fruitless partisan warfare, I fear the effect on the impassioned young people at the core of his coalition.

It will be one more thread cut, and I’m not sure how many more cuts America’s frayed social fabric can take before it begins unraveling entirely.

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