It gets stranger. These two groups—the brave students demanding to prevent another tragedy, and those denying their very existence from behind computer screens—have something profound in common.
They’re both responding to the dominant condition of our nation today: mistrust.
In the mid-1960s, 77 percent of Americans reported trust in the U.S. government to do the right thing all or most of the time, according to surveys from Gallup and the National Elections Survey. Asked the same question in a Gallup poll late last year, only 18 percent reported trusting the government. This isn’t a Trump-specific phenomenon. Trust has been falling in the United States for decades, and it hit comparably low points during the Clinton and Obama presidencies.
It’s also not a government-specific phenomenon. Trust in virtually all American institutions is down sharply since the 1960s and 1970s, including people’s faith in banks, churches, healthcare, and big business. Our loss of trust in government, in media, and in each other helps explain this peculiar moment, a time when some of us can’t believe the government’s inability to take action and others can’t believe what they’re seeing.
The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas are discovering that they can’t trust their elected officials to take action on gun control. And why should they? The Columbine massacre occurred in 1999, before any of these children were born. Legislators have had 18 years to ensure that American schools are safe places for students to learn. Instead, students are so familiar with drills to protect themselves from mass shootings that one enterprising high schooler, Justin Rivard, has designed a metal brace that can secure a classroom door from an active shooter who blasts off a lock. Tragically, Rivard’s clever hack has a much better chance of being adopted than legislation to institute universal background checks, which 97 percent of Americans support.
Despite having good reason not to trust the political process, the students are doing what we’ve been taught to do as citizens: tell our legislators what we think, and if they don’t listen, demand to be heard. So far, that’s not gone especially well. One group of students traveled to Tallahassee to meet with legislators and instead watched 71 Republican legislators block debate on bills to limit high-capacity magazines. A town meeting with legislators, televised by CNN, went little better, as politicians squirmed uncomfortably and failed to answer the blunt questions put forward by students.
Watching the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students engage with their elected leaders is a crash course in understanding how people develop mistrust in representative democracies. The fear is that the experience will quickly teach the students that change is impossible. The hope, instead, is that they will learn that change can occur, but perhaps not through the methods they’ve been taught to use. While the Florida legislature prioritizes debating the health risks of pornography over considering gun control, online campaigns have convinced airlines, rental-car companies, and banks to cut their ties with the NRA. The uncomfortable lesson may be that corporations are more responsive to customer concerns than lawmakers are to their constituents. This may be good news in the short term for activists, but it should be a bright red flag for anyone concerned for democracy in the long term.