Opacity, obfuscation rapidly eroding public trust in political office

Theories abound on the how and the why of Washington’s January 6 incited insurrection. The discredited, departing U.S. president doubtlessly bears a hefty share of the immediate responsibility.

But Donald Trump isn’t the total picture. He’s just the latest snapshot.

It makes sense, too, to look at a larger, longer-brewing piece of the madness, something simpler to grasp and address: how the lack of political transparency has steadily undermined public trust.

The annual Edelman Trust Barometer last week reinforced the global caricature of government as an institution inadequately believed. While there was a mild lift early in the pandemic to its trustworthiness, credibility declined broadly as the year progressed. The University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy compiled data from four million respondents early last year that suggested satisfaction with democracy was at its lowest in 25 years, and it would be reasonable to expect it hasn’t improved since.

The dangerous, outrageous attack on the Capitol will take time to investigate and prosecute. But on a different plain – one that involves more rational actors – how might the emergence of a culture of candor from our political institutions be a solid step of widespread help?

The trust gap with governments is due in part to their trust gap with us.

Governments part grudgingly and spend generously shielding information. There is some justification for this: for our general safety and even our national security, some things ought not to be disclosed. But there are many more shabby and self-preserving reasons why those in power keep the lid tightly bolted on much of what they know. They fear what we would do if we had to regularly deal with their imperfections and the ambiguity and ambivalence of decision-making. They see admission or revelation of mistakes as weakness, not virtue. I believe this because many have told me so.

At the moment the wretched excess of deceit arising from the Trump administration is the principal cause for concern, but this is not a problem unique to any leader or party. Across the board, politicians talk an excellent game in opposition and walk an awful one in power. They are misers in letting the public know what they know.

The habitual withholding of information over a spending decision or a policy moves even the rational into speculation and suspicion and into a search somewhere for its validation. Until recent times, there was no oasis to host this distrust, but the rise of social media with the help of algorithms created a broad echo chamber of expression and a deceptively credible supply of content to indulge the skepticism. Its fraudulent extremity certainly played into Trumpism and the latent moves by the social media giants to restrain the flood feels too little, too late.

It is easy to blame the symptoms: those algorithms, the actual fake news, the soft reporting without critical thinking, the under-informed part of the public without what is commonly called “information hygiene” of verified, reliable material.

But a root cause is the propensity of almost all political entities to protect their hides by hiding their activities. Even among those with the best of intentions about their governments, we lack an understanding of the pathology of policy, the footprints of our history and how our leadership dissects and confronts its problems. We hear the certainty of the decision without seeing the uncertainty of its deliberations, so it positions our leaders as false icons and leaves no room for their reasonable vulnerability that might develop more public compassion about their straits.

We worry instead about the mightiness of the forum and platform rather than the weakness in the underlying supply of credible data. A culture of candour would – not instantly, but over time – shed light on how our leaders contend with challenges and demonstrate respect for the public they represent.

Instead, it requires whistleblowers and public inquiries to evince what ought to be publicly disclosed. Our freedom of information laws are pretentious and illusory when they ought to be profound and illuminating.

Of course, let’s not be naïve: were they more frank, they would face more criticism. But public service also has a higher obligation to resist its own cynicism, to believe in the better qualities of human nature, one of which is our general capacity to forgive mistakes or comprehend choices when we understand the conditions under which they were made.

Just as there is a need to understand our history to help us fashion a more tolerant and principled society, there is a basic requirement for our leaders to level with us more, to reform this information deficit and rebuild our trust while they deal with the harsher elements of a system that have contributed to the deep-seated malaise.

Out of this horrid episode in America can come some valuable opportunities everywhere. •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.