“The People” Are Morons — But We Must Trust Them
If elites don’t learn to swallow their pride, nihilism will swallow us all.
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“Think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize half of them are stupider than that!” — George Carlin
Life, on the whole, is getting better. It’s not improving for everyone, and it’s not improving on every conceivable axis. But it is, on the whole, improving. Yet even as we continue to win victories for humanity, we are losing faith in the institutions that have enabled this progress. Trust is collapsing. There are many reasons for this, but they all trace back to the increasingly strained relationship between the public, and, for lack of a better term, the “elites” — those in positions of high authority, influence, and status. The age-old understanding, of elites running the show behind closed doors, and the public going about their little lives confident that matters above their pay grade will be taken care of, is over.
The tension that now exists can most clearly be seen in the attitudes of elite circles versus those of populists, with whom the public is now more aligned than ever. Populists extol the virtue, decency, and good sense of the common man as justification for democratized and decentralized arrangements that vest the maximum possible authority in the hands of citizens.1 Elitists, by contrast, view the public as a swinish rabble of ignorant, impulsive, overreacting babies who don’t know what’s in their own best interest and cannot be trusted with tough choices, hard truths, or real responsibilities. They ought to know their place, and leave important decisions to their betters — the animals don’t run the zoo. The truth lies somewhere in between these extremes.
There are elements that both populists and elitists get right about the public — and some that they get dead wrong. Populists are correct when they stress the importance of giving citizens a bigger seat at the table — but incorrect in their justification. “The people” are, as Marsellus Wallace would put it, pretty fuckin’ far from wise — but the intelligence or prudence of the public is irrelevant to the matter at hand. Elitists are spot on when they characterize the public as a mob of short-sighted morons, always reacting in the moment on whims, hardly able to see five seconds ahead. But they’re suicidally wrong in thinking that the populace should therefore not be trusted. Both populists and elitists make the same mistake of tying the level of trust that should be vested in the public to the public’s trustworthiness. One side thinks the public “deserves” trust, and the other doesn’t. Herein lies the fatal error. Merit has nothing to do with it.
The public was not trusted 500 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 50. Why is today different? Why do a growing chorus of people now demand trust where their predecessors did not? Because decades ago, information moved slowly, its avenues of dissemination were few, and the doings of institutions and elites were a step removed from the public eye. Those days are over. Through the magic of the internet, everyone can now see behind the curtain. For the first time in human history, the populace has glimpsed the extent to which their self-deputized betters disdain them, lie to them, fleece them, fail them, and attempt to manipulate them. And it hasn’t gone over well, to say the least.
Today’s institutions are flawed, to be sure, but they are not as broken as popularly believed. In his widely acclaimed book The Revolt of the Public (2014), Martin Gurri compares the Bay of Pigs disaster in the early days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency to Barack Obama’s passage of economic stimulus in his own first 100 days. The contrast is illuminating. JFK emerged from his colossal blunder with higher trust. Meanwhile, Obama, whose stimulus bill was a significant notch in the belt of any new president, saw a steady decline in approval thereafter. What accounts for this disconnect? Our elites have not changed all that much. Rather, the public has changed. A peak under the hood of society has made the people more demanding, more cynical, and less forgiving. Times have changed. If elites don’t change with them, we may be in serious trouble.
The internet is the great window through which the public can now see when they are being treated like children. Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. The public watched their health authorities first proclaim that face masks don’t work when it was believed there was a shortage, and then do an about-face when they become plentiful, only for the data to eventually reveal that they were not quite as effective as we thought all along. Everyone saw the herd immunity threshold being massaged based on what the plebs were believed to be able to “handle.” These falsehoods, and myriad others, were told with good intentions. But underlying them is a fundamental distrust and disrespect for the general public, one that has proven more damaging than whatever harm the lies were intended to minimize.
The decision makers that guide society no longer do so in total privacy. The proverbial smoke-filled rooms still exist, but they dwindle by the year. For all the complaints about a lack of transparency, the world today is positively translucent compared to all prior generations. The attitudes, tactics, and sensibilities that the ruling classes have indulged in from time immemorial are no longer viable. You just can’t get away with this kind of disrespect and disregard for the masses anymore. The jig is up.
Trust is a two-way street. You have to give to get. If our institutions want to regain the public’s trust, they must in turn trust the public. This isn’t a moral argument — it’s basic pragmatism. Institutional trust is in freefall, and trust is the foundation of everything. If it drops below a certain point, modern civilization comes tumbling down — order, human rights, liberalism, markets, democracy and all. You don’t need to venerate or love the public. But you do need to respect their power. Because as simple, myopic, and inconsiderate as they may be individually — and certainly are collectively — they wield the only real power. The power of elites is a confidence game, conjured out of shared belief. The power of the people is inherent.
Even in the most totalitarian regimes, where no one has freedoms or rights, the authorities are careful not to push their subjects beyond the point of having nothing left to lose; anxious to control information, crush dissent, and drown the landscape in propaganda. Why? Because the true power of any society, whether realized, latent, or suppressed, rests with the governed — not because they are wise, or deserving, or because democracy is manifest destiny — but because they are the many, and if roused, all the secret policeman in the world won’t save you from their wrath.
Despite what the many malcontents would have you believe, we have a pretty good thing going here. Mere words cannot articulate the magnitude of ignorance, parochialism, and lack of perspective required not to appreciate how singularly well-off, by virtually every metric, the modern developed West is compared to every other human population in history. It’s not perfect, of course, and much work remains to be done. But things can get a lot worse. And they will, if elites don’t learn to swallow their pride. A conflagration of trust has been ignited, and its spread will eventually consume everything that we have built.
This takes us back to attitude. It seems such a small and immaterial matter. Trivial. An empty platitude we preach to the youth. But attitude sets the tone for everything, from individual interactions to the maintenance of society. An attitude of top-down distrust, in these technologically connected times, poisons everything. And yet, elites and institutions still persistently neglect to cut the public in on the deal. For some, it’s a matter of petulant recalcitrance — the juvenile inability to come to terms with changing times. For others, their heads are simply so far up their own asses they’re tasting last night’s foie gras.
Regarding the public as a mob of volatile imbeciles and the seat of true power who must be treated like adults are not mutually exclusive views. They are, in fact, both necessary. To view the populace as intelligent and wise is pure delusion. Lies are what got us here in the first place, and we won’t lie our way out of it. But to handle the public like children will prove a catastrophic mistake. Whether or not you think the public “deserves” trust is irrelevant. The fact is, if they don’t get it, we’ll all be swallowed by the abyss. And we will deserve it. I’m not asking anyone to become the next William Jennings Bryan. I’m merely appealing to your sense of self-preservation. Save yourselves, you fools.
See also: “Our Inbred Betters”
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