The all around enormity of what we as both a nation and world face right now is mind-boggling. If it’s not a debt crisis in some form, it’s an unprecedented environmental disaster (with a looming climate catastrophe on the horizon). I think the buildup of these contemporary and simultaneous disasters will test Democracies to their core, whether they can actually work. Are people either willing or able to act and vote against their short-term interests for the sake of longevity? Right now, it seems we’re not doing so well. The problem is, I want in no way to lose the relatively free and open societies democracies allow.
Extending these crises more deeply, we have no clue whom we can trust anymore to help bring about long-term solutions. Whom do we go to in order to find plausible answers to these troubling questions? Every politician is in the pocket of someone or something dubious, at least to some extent. So called ‘experts,’ at least of the economic variety (and I would be willing to extend it beyond them) give us imperatives on par with divine commands; yet these ‘experts’ end up being wrong more often than they’re right. On top of that, to combat a myth currently circulating in Tea-party (and really all populist) circles, the ‘people’ aren’t to be a priori trusted either. ‘We’ are as shortsighted as anyone else, demanding oil and jobs at any cost. And, we keep our politicians fearful when they attempt to look at longer-term problems because (1) we honestly don’t trust them, and (2) we often times don’t honestly want them to change the status quo.
That said, the U.S. democracy is operating in a climate of absolute distrust, where everyone thinks that everyone else is actively conspiring against the other (and this belief might be held for good reason, frankly). I’m the first to admit that a certain amount of mistrust is necessary in a democracy, namely, that anyone who claims to act benevolently and without particularized interests in mind is the one to be least trusted. I’ll even make a theological point of this: to claim that one’s motives are pure, for the good of all, universal, is to claim a will on par with God’s, that we can actually will, as individuals, what is best not merely for ourselves but for everyone. This is self-idolization, in my book, and frankly this is the one place that Tea-partying anti-government arguments work; governments, which are made up of individual persons with individual wills, do not necessarily and really seek a common good and must be held to account.
However, mistrust (as I’m using it) also has the connotation of some active trust. That is, we may know that everyone skews the good and the just by means of self-interested ends (conscious or unconscious), but we can also trust that they’re doing their damnedest not to. That makes a huge difference, I think; it at least puts a pragmatic program in place to use mistrust as a way to hold open public dialogue for democratically acting on real solutions to our long-term problems.