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Ethan Zuckerman on why losing faith in institutions might be a good first step

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Today’s Hub Dialogue with is Ethan Zuckerman, a professor of public policy, communication, and information at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of the fascinating book, Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them. It’s a well-researched and well-argued book that’s received critical acclaim for its nuanced and thought-provoking perspective on ongoing economic, political, and sociological debates about the standing of institutions in modern society. 

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

SEAN SPEER: I am honoured to be joined by Professor Zuckerman to talk about his book’s insights including the causes of declining institutional trusts and what may arise out of this period of low trust. Thanks for speaking to us. 

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Thanks for having me. 

Trust in institutions

SEAN SPEER: Declining social trust in institutions is typically characterized as a lamentable development. But your book interestingly argues that it may have a positive aspect to it. Can you please explain?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: We’ve seen a huge drop in trust in institutions, at least in the United States, between the late 1960s and the present day. 

Once you try to start unpacking this and figure out what’s going on, it may be some overall sociological phenomenon. It may be that we are getting sick of inequality. It may also be that we’re better informed and that we’re increasingly fed up with institutions that don’t perform well. There’s a bunch of different hypotheses you can throw at this. There is a sense that it’s an overall trend, but then when you look at individual institutions, you can often find reasons why you might predict a sharp drop in confidence.

For instance, there was a great deal of confidence in big business, running up until about the 2008 financial crash. Then suddenly, you see a really sharp drop in confidence in that set of institutions. In the United States, there was real confidence in the Church up until the Boston Globe revealed that the Catholic Church was engaged in covering up sexual abuse at a horrifically high level. At that point, you see a very sharp decline. It’s possible that in losing trust, we are actually wising up and we are becoming more critical. 

There’s also a racial and class aspect to this. Most statistics that look at trust in government show that marginalized racial groups usually have lower trust in government. You might argue that this is because the systems are simply not working as well for minoritized people as they are for people in the majority.

SEAN SPEER: The book distinguishes between “institutionalists” and “insurrectionists” in modern society. These two groups can both have good and bad aspects to them. Institutionalists allow for stability but they can also enable conformity and exclusion. Insurrectionists can help to achieve progress but may also cause disunity and instability. How should we think about the trade-offs between institutionalists and insurrectionists? 

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Those terms seemed like a much better idea before there was a literal insurrection in the United States where people tried to take over the Capitol. I only meant it metaphorically to describe people who wanted to overturn institutions, not ones who wanted to literally round up members of Congress.

I come to my work as someone who tends to lean towards the Left politically, so I think when I started doing this work, I was arguing for the value of insurrection. The idea was the political process is sclerotic and required change. And then Trump got elected. Suddenly, like a lot of people on the Left in the United States, I got very interested in the health of our institutions, and whether they would be able to hold up against the attacks of someone who had no desire for those institutions have a lot of continuity, and in some ways, was really working to undermine those institutions. 

For me, it was a great education. For the nation, in many ways, it was a great education. It was a challenge to this thought that you may occasionally think about wanting to overturn the government and start afresh. But do you really? When you start finding branches of government functionally disabled, you find yourself really sort of missing the power of those institutions.

It’s possible that in losing trust, we are actually wising up.  

Nevertheless, what I think is helpful about the book’s aim to bring nuance to these questions about trust in institutions and why some institutions have lost the public’s trust is that there’s some percentage of voters in every democracy who don’t have a lot of confidence in institutions anymore. Persuading them to continue strengthening those institutions is a losing battle. You may be in a different position in Canada than we are in the U.S.—I hope you are—but in the U.S., we’ve reached a point where there is a significant chunk of people on both the Left and on the Right, for whom politics as usual is very hard to take seriously. 

What I really wanted to do in this book was take those people seriously, and say, “I believe that you can have a very significant part in the civic process, even if you feel like the ways that you’ve been taught to do civics don’t apply anymore.” 

The first thing to recognize is that there are insurrectionists. There may be a few of them, there may be a lot of them. But they’re not idiots and they shouldn’t be easily dismissed because they say that standard forms of political engagement don’t make much sense to them. Frankly, many of them, as I argue in the book, are incredibly politically and civically powerful people when they can figure out the right levers to pull and manipulate.

SEAN SPEER: As you’ve outlined, you have nuanced views about insurrectionists. On one hand, there are those who challenge failing institutions and in turn can often bring about positive change. On the other hand, there can be insurrectionists who, as you describe, are simply a threat to stability and freedom. How can we distinguish between good and bad insurrectionists? What characteristics make them good and which ones make them bad?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: It’s a great question. And thank you for it, because it is really, really hard. The easy answer is one person is good as another person is bad. But that’s a pat answer. 

Here’s how I would try to answer it: Insurrectionists who point to a system that is failing certain groups of people over a long period of time, and has lost their trust, and who can then offer alternative ways that we could structure this system are generally the insurrectionists that I’m trying to support. 

Let me give you an example that’s going to come so far from the Left that it may be hard to process. There is a movement in the United States coming out of racial justice protests around George Floyd’s killing that gets referred to as the “Defund the Police” movement. I don’t think it’s a great slogan because it basically says, “Let’s take the money away,” from policing and that’s essentially it. It sounds like pure insurrection. Yet what almost everyone who’s pushing to defund the police is actually saying is that in some U.S. cities the police are so mistrusted by communities of colour that they cannot effectively do their jobs. There is such a tough record of poor policing, racial harassment, and so on and so forth, that you probably need to close one institution and build a new one in its place. 

The best example of this happened in a city called Camden, New Jersey, which is a majority-black city. It’s a very poor city, and for quite some time was the most dangerous city in the United States with the highest murder rate per capita. It also had a police force that had a terrible record of corruption and a terrible record of its interactions with the community. What the city ultimately ended up doing, not for ideological reasons but for financial reasons, was shutting down the city’s police force, firing all the officers, and rehiring some of them on a countywide police force that instead of being focused on confrontational policing, was focused on community policing, and was focused on sending officers in the neighbourhoods trying to get to know their territories. The murder rate has dropped, the corruption rate has dropped; it’s been a phenomenal success. 

It’s interesting, in part, because it wasn’t a happy story for anyone. For those of us on the Left, it was a story about union-busting. Basically, it was the story about the police union being shut down and people losing their jobs. For people on the Right, it was the story about police officers getting fired and suddenly the police force is half the size that it was previously. 

What it did, though, was a reset of an institution that had lost the faith of the people that it was trying to serve. That’s the question you really want to look at and say, “Is this an institution that has just lost faith and can’t effectively serve people? And do you have something else that you want to put in its place?” 

Now, you, as a smart interviewer, should respond to this and say, “Isn’t that what happened at the Capitol?” On January 6th, the people who broke into the Capitol may have felt like the institutions no longer have their faith. That’s why they were there at the White House and that they had a solution in mind that was “Let’s just keep Trump in office.” 

There has got to be something about people from multiple different points of view agreeing that a problem is real and intractable, and that is where we got to in Camden before they ended up dissolving and forming a public security force on a county basis rather than that of a city force. I’m not sure that three percent of very angry people can decide by themselves to overthrow an institution unless it’s an institution that primarily serves them. You can have small groups of people essentially say that “We are the people this institution is serving, and it’s not serving us.” It’s much harder to do that at the federal government level. It’s a lot easier to do it with your political science department at your university, where you say, “No, actually, we’re about 60 percent of the students, and this isn’t working, and it’s time for the chair to go.”

SEAN SPEER: You’ve mentioned a few times that you come to these issues as someone of the Left. I should say in full transparency that I am broadly on the centre-right. One question in my own mind at all times is at what point does my instinct to conserve long-standing institutions actually become an obstacle to constructive progress or contribute to actual harm. What would you say to this difficult balance and our tendency to instinctively defend institutions that we know?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: You get kudos for doing that. Both the Left and the Right have institutions that we tend to revere. The Left, at least in the U.S., gets really passionate about the courts. They get quite reverential and say “Oh, my God, we could not expand past 13 [Supreme Court] justices.” But maybe there’s a moment where that is the right thing to do. 

Institutions are absolutely necessary, but also understand that institutions calcify.

The only responsible way to look at this question, from the Left or from the Right, is to understand that institutions are absolutely necessary, but also understand that institutions calcify and sometimes they do not work as well as they did at the original onset. The other thing is that institutions preserve themselves. Institutions work very hard to say, “It doesn’t matter who’s in charge, it doesn’t matter who’s got the corner office,” but the institution itself survives; it’s the nature of institutions. 

One of the things that’s interesting about the United States’ story is that we’re literally a country out of revolution. We had this foundational revolution where we abandoned one system and picked another one up. Yet, despite that, we’re surprisingly resistant to subsequent revolutions. We ended up with a constitution that is probably too difficult to change. It’s probably a little too static to deal with the ways that society has evolved over the years. 

But you’re to be congratulated for wrestling with that question of, “Am I holding on to this just because I like these institutions? Or am I holding on to them because there’s real value to the continuity?” It’s a fundamental question. 

Associations as democracy

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned the founding of the American Revolution. One interesting part of the intellectual and sociological dimensions of America is that it has had both a deep commitment to individualism and, as De Tocqueville observed, it has also historically been in the business of institution building. 

My question for you is, in the modern era, does individualism stand in the way of building new institutions? Who are the new institution builders at a time when scholars like Robert Putnam have observed that we’re increasingly bowling alone?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: De Tocqueville talks a lot about associations. He’s quite fond of that word. To distinguish between an association and an institution, an association is a bit of a lighter-weight thing. It is a group of people who come together for something as simple as a barn raising or it could be something as complex as Benjamin Franklin’s Junto Club that ended up meeting year after year. 

The ways in which these different clubs that then turned into the libraries and the firehouses, and all the different assemblies associated with it; it was Americans’ associative capacity, that ability to sort of rapidly form associations, that De Tocqueville found the most interesting. 

Some become institutions and some don’t. The point of an institution is that we know we need this thing, and it must exist beyond the individual efforts of the current members. It must have some sort of longer lifespan to it. That’s what, in my view, differentiates an association from an institution. 

As we get into figures like Putnam, who are really worried about the state of social capital under modernity, one of the interesting questions is to say, “What are the other places that we associate with, and which ones of those associations turned into institutions?” Putnam is fond of this fairly romanticized vision of the 1950s and 1960s, in which civic life is very local. We join the local Elks Lodge, which is a men’s club. We join the bowling league, which, by the way, is also a men’s club. 

One of my favorite politicians, Danielle Allen, is fond of pointing out that the main thing that destroys this moment for Putnam is that there’s a lawsuit that opens these institutions to women. You could argue that what gets rid of Putnam’s view of the perfect civic space is that suddenly we’re not allowed to say “No Boys Allowed.” 

But what I would say is that we are learning how to associate and associate quite well, sometimes in online spaces. I realized that sounds crazy at a moment where everyone is complaining about Facebook crippling democracy.

Take a counterexample. Reddit is the fifth most popular website in the United States. It’s phenomenally popular in Canada, as well. It is run almost entirely by volunteer moderators. Those volunteer moderators try to decide what is going to be allowable in their particular communities. Some do that job very well, some do it very poorly. In the process of learning how to run a meeting, people learn how to delegate, they learn how to make decisions, they learn a lot of these things that we used to learn in the Elks Club or balancing the budget for the local bowling league. 

I don’t know that associative capital has disappeared. In many ways, it has transferred from one set of organizations to another. The other thing about some of these associations is that they actually are institutions. If you go to some of these super-popular Subreddits—the one that I always use is ‘r/aww’, which is where you go for your daily dose of cute puppy photos—, no one really cares who the moderator of that group is. That’s an institution. That moderator can tag out and someone else can come into their place. But the fact that you have this community, you have the ruleset associated with it, you have the history associated with it, that ends up having the capability of continuing forth as an institution. 

What we have to do is get better at looking at where those associations and institutions are in our lives. Putnam’s big insight was that democracy doesn’t just happen within the statehouse; it also happens within the bowling league. I love to update that and point out that there are acts of “little D” democracy happening all over the world all the time today if we’re smart enough to see them.

Polarization and persuasion

SEAN SPEER: You argue in the book that the best means of changing social values and norms is through persuasion—changing minds, as you put it rather than political brute strength or legal processes. But it leaves the question: is persuasion still possible in an era of polarization?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: What I’m actually arguing is that in conventional civics, we are taught that there is one true way of making social change, and that is through passing law. I am arguing that there’s a whole bunch of other ways that are also powerful. You can make change in a market, you can make change through technology, and you can make change through norms.

I also go further and argue that for a lot of people, shifting norms feels a lot easier than passing laws. In many cases, you have to shift the norms before you pass the laws. There’s an extended part of the book that is pretty U.S. specific, where I make the case that our courts used to push social change, and then the public would catch up. Now, we’re at a point where the public pushes social change and the courts catch up. 

It’s a very visible shift over the last 50 years, centering around interracial marriage and around gay marriage. Can people be persuaded? Yes, absolutely. But it’s slow. It happens sometimes over generations. 

Persuasion works a whole lot better when people get to know each other over long periods of time.

In the United States, we had horrific problems of not just structural racism, but virulent racism. If you go back to some of those early court cases about whether blacks and whites can marry and you had fewer than three percent of Americans in 1965, saying that they supported interracial marriage. When you poll that question now, it’s around 80 percent. Some people change their minds, some died; it’s a long time from 1965 to the present. We see a similar change around gay marriage. Again, some people die, and some people change their minds, but the other things that happen are more people become aware that they have gay friends in their lives. People who don’t have gay friends immediately in their lives become aware of gay pop stars and social leaders who they admire and want to support.

Change does happen but it very rarely happens by people who strongly disagree about issues yelling at each other. Most of what we think is a political debate is when we put two people who disagree very strongly get together in a room and look to see who loses the most blood. That is not usually how persuasion works. Persuasion works a whole lot better when people get to know each other over long periods of time and when they work together on a common project. I think persuasion has a lot to do with culture, and how culture shapes how we look at the world and how we make decisions. I’m a huge believer in norm-space change. If anything, what I am skeptical of is the sort of straightforward, “Let’s go sit down and deliberate and find ourselves the truth.” In many ways, that’s an overrated form of political life. And these sorts of slower social changes are a deeply underrated form of political life.

SEAN SPEER: Well, Professor Zuckerman, thank you for such a fascinating conversation. Of course, the book is Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in the Institution Provides the Tools to Transform Them. We’re grateful for the chance to speak to you. I have no doubt that our readers will enjoy today’s dialogue as much as I have. Thank you.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Oh, thank you so much. Those are just great questions, and I really enjoyed talking with you. I got a chance to look up The Hub and get a sense to see what you’re doing. It’s exciting. It’s nice to have a different voice coming out of Canada, and I called a few Canadian friends to try to get a sense of where the publication is coming from. They were very enthusiastic about it despite being like me, left-wing academics. They were happy to see it.