The Disease Killing Democracy is Distrust | Opinion

Coming into the new year, it is vital to come to grips with the disease that most threatens American democracy—nearly universal distrust of its governing institutions. The anger and polarization rivening society are symptoms of distrust.

Distrust is the virus that got in the brain of those people who stormed the Capitol last January. They believed America's electoral machinery had somehow been rigged to steal the election from Donald J. Trump.

Distrust is what motivates millions of Americans, despite all evidence, to refuse COVID-19 vaccinations.

A deep well of distrust is what powered the riots across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Overcoming distrust is not easy. Facts don't work because distrustful people don't believe they're facts. It doesn't matter that vote recounts in Georgia and other states, confirming the accuracy of the final tally, were led by Republicans. It doesn't matter that vaccinations actually work to reduce the harm of the coronavirus, and that vaccinated friends suffer no ill effects. It doesn't matter to the "defund the police" activists that most minority communities want an active police presence.

The political parties, as currently led, are unlikely to offer a path away from distrust and toward common ground. The more they generate fear of extremists from the other side, the more money they raise. They profit by exaggerating woke ideologies and violent right-wing fringes. Ditto for media: Conflict attracts attention, which attracts advertisers.

Once distrust reaches a critical mass, "confirmation bias" constantly reinforces it. Distrust not only hardens, but attracts more adherents as it causes institutional failures. The more things fail—schools don't reopen, testing kits are unavailable, homelessness grows, politicians don't deliver—the more people are distrustful. Pew recently found that 85 percent of Americans believe American democracy needs major changes or must be completely reformed.

America is at a dangerous point. Distrust drives people to extreme actions, as we saw in the invasion of the Capitol and in the riots over the summer of 2020. For the first time in memory, serious observers are starting to talk about organized civil strife.

The path toward trust, however, is not continued battles against extremists of either side. Telling people they're wrong, or stupid, or selfish, is a formula for further polarization.

 The American flag is flown at half-staff
The American flag is flown at half-staff over the U.S. Capitol building. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

What's needed is a governing vision that engages Americans to help make things work better. Many Americans feel powerless, as if governed by an alien force. They have no connection to the nuts and bolts of public choices, and almost everything they see from Washington reinforces their belief that choices are made by Big Brother without any respect for local beliefs and needs.

The new governing vision should re-empower Americans at all levels of responsibility to roll up their sleeves and use their common sense. Replace red tape with flexible frameworks that allow communities to do things in their own ways. Frustrated Americans would then have a chance to make a difference. Instead of mandates from a bureaucratic black box, Americans should have a clear line of sight to officials who are actually making decisions. Only then can democracy provide accountability to voters.

Many, perhaps most, Americans would subscribe to a vision of simpler frameworks activated by human responsibility. Left wing activists want accountability of police and other officials. Right wing activists are angered by mandates from on high. Everyone wants better schools. Doctors and nurses need relief from endless red tape. The new governing framework would set goals and guiding principles, not dictate how to run a classroom, or care for a patient. Clear lines of authority would hold people accountable for the job they do.

Nor does the new vision require a complex platform. It should embrace one overriding principle: simpler frameworks activated by human responsibility. Let people decide. Let others hold them accountable. Instead of a detailed platform, it should call for independent commissions to recommend new simpler frameworks, area by area. Congress can then vote the proposals up or down.

Neither party will lead such a movement, because most interest groups exist to preserve the status quo. The parties instead will grandstand for their favored reforms. But reform never happens, except on the margins, and pruning this red tape jungle is a fool's errand. It would take a thousand lifetimes to untangle this bureaucratic mess—150 million words of federal law and regulation alone. Reforms almost never succeed because the modern bureaucratic state has been built on a flawed premise—that thick rulebooks should dictate "one correct way" to make daily choices. All across America, doctors, teachers, small businesses and officials pull their hair out trying to comply with dictates that make no sense in particular situations. It must be replaced, not repaired.

Americans overwhelmingly think our democracy needs to be overhauled. Let's create a movement to do just that. The current trench warfare is leading us nowhere except continued distrust, public failure and unravelling of the great promise of American democracy.

Philip K. Howard is chair of Common Good. His latest book is Try Common Sense.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.