We interrupt the usual semianarchy of the Internet to bring you an important message from David Brooks:
I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else. [bold mine-DL]
Is it more likely that institutions are distrusted because of some vanity-driven public cynicism or that public cynicism is the product of institutional failures? Populist movements may try to shift all of the blame for the country’s woes onto the people in power, and they do tend to ignore the complicity of voters and consumers in the failures of government and the market. That’s not a new phenomenon. Populist movements also come into existence because of clear failures of leadership at the highest levels. Populist explanations of those failures may not be entirely accurate, or they may be one-sided and inclined to ignore their preferred party’s role in recent debacles, but they are mostly healthy reactions to the harmful blunders of the political class and corporate leaders.
If contemporary populist movements are interested in what Brooks calls “a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king,”* it wouldn’t be surprising after the last decade of mismanagement, incompetence, and disaster brought to us by consensus-minded “centrist” managers. Of course, Brooks is wrong to say that OWS and the Tea Party “dispense with authority altogether.” At least as far as Tea Party rhetoric is concerned, the appeal to legitimate authority (the Constitution) is essential. For the purposes of this argument, it doesn’t matter that the constitutionalism of some Tea Partiers is selective or relatively new.
What bothers Brooks about these movements is not that they reject all authority, but that they have weighed the claims to authority made by the current political class and found them badly wanting. These people probably haven’t concluded that they are “better than everyone else around them.” They are reasonably sure that their leaders are worse than they should be. If they are more cynical now than before, it could have something to do with the complete lack of accountability for the people most responsible for the calamities of the last ten years.
* Brooks presumably didn’t mean to say disbursed here, since it makes no sense at all in that sentence.