The only major institution that has earned greater American trust in these past four decades is the military. In part, however, that’s because surveys began measuring trust in the military during the Vietnam War, when it was at a historic low.
As institutions mature—and we might think of an institution as anything without a face, an organization in which our interactions are with a bureaucracy or a policy rather than with autonomous individuals—we seem to become both reliant on them and mistrustful of them. In the United States, trust in the medical system plummeted from 74 percent in 1977 to 34 percent in 1993, suggesting that the rise of the HMO and other forms of managed health care—and the increase in bureaucracy they represent—helped collapse public confidence in a key institution. It is one thing to trust the medical system when the main person you interact with is your doctor, and another thing entirely when it’s the anonymous processor of your insurance claims.
When mistrust is on the rise in a society, it becomes increasingly difficult to know how to address it. Once you’ve concluded that the government can’t be trusted to do the right thing, you’re less likely to rely on voting as a useful form of civic expression.
Mistrust presents a problem for protesters as well. The most iconic protest in 20th-century America, the 1963 March on Washington, which culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, demonstrates the value of protest when electoral influence doesn’t succeed. The march was designed to force President Kennedy to support the Civil Rights Act, which had been stalled in Congress. The massive march and accompanying media coverage persuaded Kennedy to act on civil rights—or gave him plausible cover to act—and gave Lyndon Johnson a mandate to push for its passage.
The march set the template for so many subsequent protests. But now that partisan paralysis prevents Washington from making compromises and changes, it is no longer rational for us to try to influence Congress, or even a president, through protest. The international women’s march, held the day after Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, was not an attempt to persuade the new president to change his policies. Instead, it offered a howl of anger at his election and what it symbolized. That it was likely the largest protest in American history made little difference in influencing the Trump administration.
When I wrote this essay, which has been adapted from my book Mistrust, I didn’t predict the violent insurrection in which white nationalists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, forcing members of Congress to barricade themselves in their offices.
But I maintain that the Trump extremists who vandalized the Capitol give insurrection a bad name. I’ve spent much of my career studying how people speak out against governments and other institutions that have failed them. And though the notion of insurrectionism is often associated with violent uprisings, I see another kind of insurrectionism, deployed as a civically responsible form of social change, as a productive alternative to institutionalism. Put another way, we can either work to make our existing institutions better, or we can recognize that they’re no longer fit for purpose and build new ones in their stead. Hunting down our representatives because they won’t overthrow an election doesn’t get us any closer to functional institutions, because it’s not insurrectionism; it’s terrorism.