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Nobody Trusts the Government

The usual formulation that you will see masticated these days by the flimsy jaws of men and women who have broken free of the editorial column to become freelance ponderers and thinkers is that the Republicans are the neo-confederate secessionists who distrust the government while the liberals, and their captive class of government employees, union members and official minority groups trust in it.

That formulation, like so much else in the spilled ink of the dying newspaper, is wrong.

Both sides distrust the government. They just react to that distrust differently. The right reacts to that distrust by trying to limit or pull down the government. The left reacts to it by trying to take it over.

The contradiction comes out most strongly among liberalism's minority base. For example, blacks are more likely to trust the Federal government than whites but less likely to trust local government. This doesn't reflect trust in government so much as it reflects a perception of which level of government is less trustworthy. From a minority perspective, national representation is safer than local governance.

Distrusting the neutrality of government and attempting to hijack it for corrupt sectarian and tribal interests reveals just as much distrust of the government and secessionist impulses as anything on the right.

Large numbers of Asian and Latino immigrants poll in favor of big government despite coming from countries whose governments are brutal and oppressive. But it's often the people who come from tyrannies who are also most likely to support them.

The neutral spaces of the Bill of Rights are not real ideas to them the way that they are to many Americans. The idea that government can simply be forced out of a space without that space being filled with either a more repressive government or gangs collecting protection money is often not a part of their experience and so not a realistic calculation for them.

Government to them is a power struggle. It's not a question of how powerful government should be, they assume that it's always powerful, but who steers the beast. And so they vote Democrat, because the Dems promise to steer it to their advantage.

It's a mistake to try and break down minority alliances with government to specific issues such as immigration or health care. Issues are only the subset of a larger cultural arrangement based on a distrust of government. In a worldview in which government is always abusive and corrupt, the only question is who gets it worst and who benefits from that corruption.

That kind of trust in government isn't trust, it's a calculated amoral strategy based on mistrust, like a shoplifter who steals because all of society is based on theft. Small government is a traditionalist strategy based on a historical memory, part real part not, of a system where more freedom and wealth were available by minimizing government power.

The other side rejects that historical memory as naive and irrelevant in favor of grappling for power now.

It's not just an issue with minorities. The Tea Party runs into that same issue when polls show that the commitment of Americans to small government stops when it's to their disadvantage. That is the gap that the left knows about and exploits in its traditional style of creating a patchwork system of fines, taxes and subsidies that create massive inequalities but force everyone to cling to their privileges.

Once you accept that government isn't going to be reformed, then clinging to whatever advantages it gives you becomes a plausible survival strategy until the whole thing collapses under its own weight or the weight of public outrage. The Soviet Union outlived Russian Communism until enough people inside and outside the government decided that they could live better if they gave Marx and Lenin the boot. But if there hadn't been Western counter-examples that became increasingly hard to shut out, it might have taken much longer to fall because there would have been no visible alternative.

The right in the United States has its alternatives to the current setup and the left has its usual totalitarian fantasies, but the clients of the left don't see an alternative. They are too insecure and unwilling to gamble with their lifelines to failing setups such as generous social welfare or municipal unions to gamble with an open system. And those in the private sector are equally unwilling to support any destabilizing change that doesn't come with pre-approved promises of benefits.

Conservatives dream of defaulting to society, but for many of the clients of the left there is no larger society. They place no trust in a larger society that is bound by few formal laws because it appears to them to operate by a kinship that places them outside it. They understand how government works for all its abuses, but they are far less trusting of a society that they are not truly part of.

And it may be wishful thinking to assume that the society still even exists. Libertarian deregulation alone would not default to a working society. No more than the absence of law does in Mexico or Somalia. It's not some arcane crowdsourced magic, some wisdom of the mob that makes a society work, but the values of civilization. The United States isn't Somalia or Mexico, yet, but its social breakdown can be seen in the broken families and gangs. And there are few opposing factors.

The militarization of the police has come hand in hand with the collapse of values and mores. Take enough broken families, pile what's left over into gangs and the drug trade and before long you need a lot more police to deal with everything from domestic violence complaints to everyday rapes and murders to the bigger stuff that moves up the organized crime ladder all the way to gang warfare.

In a broken society, there are a limited range of options between the fascist government and the feudal cartel, between the gangs and the cops with their repurposed military gear, between the state and a state of lawlessness. And it's the immigrants from failed states who are the eagerest to embrace government as a hedge against the night. It doesn't mean that they trust it. It means that they distrust everything and everyone else.

While the left is obsessed with pushing society until it breaks and can be put back together their way, their clients have mostly accepted that society is broken, that families don't stay together, that men and women can't count on each other, neighbors can't be trusted and that freedom leads to anarchy.

It's not just that they need to be convinced to trust us, they also have to be convinced to trust themselves. It's easier to trust the government because it is an abstract, a set of ideas and symbols lacking in human frailties. The collective always seems stronger than the individual, even if isn't. An older breed of American distrusted the group, but elections are increasingly being won by cities and their satellite suburbs where people have despaired of the individual and believe in authority.

People only believe in governments when they lose faith in themselves and their society. The great work of the counterculture was destroying the faith of Americans in their own society, trampling their beliefs through the mud in a dozen different ways, demoralizing them, tearing down their culture and making a self-reliant individualism as difficult to sustain and as socially unacceptable as possible.

When the counterculture couldn't attack directly through regulation, it attacked indirectly by wrecking the family. When it couldn't get the numbers it needed quickly enough, it turned to immigration from failed states. That is the end result before us now.

An authoritarian state is a failed state. It represents a failure deeper than that of mere government, but of society. Before a state fails, its society fails. A culture can survive a failed state, but a failed culture cannot help produce anything except a failed state.

America is drifting into totalitarianism because of the left's exploitation of social failures. The critical mass of social breakdowns, from gang violence to terrorism to poverty, justify the nanny state, the police state and all the other totalitarian states of authority. When there is nothing and no one else to trust, a failed society turns to a tyrant who can cut through all the red tape and govern with pen and phone.


  1. Anonymous12/2/14

    America isn't drifting towards totalitarianism, but towards separation. The cause of that is the decline of Federalism. Federalism, though commonly perceived as a disunifying force, was what actually held the nation together. Federalism limited the Federal government to those activities its' members truly held in common.

    There is a great range of options between a fascist government and a feudal cartel and option number one is separation.

  2. I don't know where we're drifting to. The U.S. electorate is pretty tricky. Best to remember that Jimmy Carter's presidency was followed by that of Ronald Reagan.

  3. Anonymous12/2/14

    I don't think America is "drifting". I think America is being led.Right now we are being led by the wrong leaders with the wrong ideas. As Shouting Thomas said Jimmy Carter was replaced by Ronald Reagan. The big question is who will replace Obama?

  4. An authoritarian state is a failed state.

    The list is long and growing.

  5. Anonymous12/2/14

    Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition....

  6. Anonymous12/2/14

    Citizens dealing with the bureaucracy of government learn to distrust very quickly. The IRS and the EPA are Orwellian in their behaviors and pronouncements, they don't know up from down with their contradictory rules. Bureaucracies only survive by expanding and the law of diminishing returns then kicks in. The only viable solution to save the Republic is make the bureaucrats afraid to go to work!

  7. What's the first step toward a solution?

  8. Chavi - read The Liberty Amendments by Mark Levin. That's the only way forward, I think, before things get really ugly.

  9. Down here in the south I long ago stopped being amazed at people who get trapped in the snow and ice on un-plowed roads because the government didn't tell them to stay home. Looking out the window and drawing ones own conclusion never occurs to them.

  10. Anonymous13/2/14

    Having depleted its population of any sources of comfort, the Mother Governement promises Unconditional Love and largesses.

    But how can it be done, when the Gargantuas lives only by feeding on the Lilliputs?

  11. Anonymous13/2/14

    An outstanding exposition.

  12. Mr. Greenfield,

    I often find your analyses truly informative. Not always. But no one is perfect, except .... Despite your imperfections - fewer than mine, I would guess - you are often enough excellent. In this essay, you have given us a great gift, much to ponder, much to raise our minds and - may I say? - hearts, higher. Thank you.

  13. I am curious. You have a drawing of Sitting Bull included with your essay. In your opinion, where does he fit into the mix? Left or right? Granted that the image you copy is appropriated by folks on the right, I still wonder what you think. Adios!

  14. He's outside the circle of left and right.

  15. Very astute observations, oh great and powerful Sultan. In my opinion there are two things that make it even worse here. First is the memory of freedoms lost and the way it was. Anyone over, say, the age of 40 remembers how much freer everything seemed. So many liberties we took for granted gone with the wind. Second is the insufferable habit the power whores have of trying to act like they are better than us and are doing it all for our own good if we only realized. I say to them in STFU - you are power whores who are robbing us blind and trying to game everything in your own favor - just admit it! Stop trying to pretend its for my own good. I can live with it better if I'm not required to pretend that I like it.

  16. Anonymous16/2/14

    So rather than believe in God and in themselves as the ones who can sustain their future, they believe in a totalitarian state as a last resort when all history says that is a complete pipe dream? What lunacy to the nth degree! Better to follow Patrick Henry and "Live Free or Die" than give in to those mutherfuckers. "Yippie Ki Yay!" and death to despots and their minions! Our so called leaders piss on us with a smile and tell us it is raining. They can go to hell as far as I am concerned and if my so called fellow Americans are sheep for the slaughter, well, that is their problem. Idiots. God gave everyone a brain. Use it. I do not relish using this language but I am done being "civil" when our rulers treat us they way they do.

  17. Career politicians have been the primary cause of the culture depravity taking place with their insistence on failed schools (to keep them on the liberal plantation), abortion, phony separation of church and state (elimination of school prayer, etc), spending future generations into unsustainable debt,and so much more --mostly to appease certain elements who contribute to their reelection which is Job#1 to them. Term limits at all levels would help a lot to get back to basics. www.termlimits.org Tenure corrupts!

  18. A government that has been directly and personally feeding, housing, schooling, and medicating you, and every one you know, every month for a couple of generations it's pretty easy to trust.

  19. Is. Sorry, autocorrect.


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