In the past decade, nearly every pillar institution in American society whether it's General Motors, Congress, Wall Street, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church or the mainstream media has revealed itself to be corrupt, incompetent or both. And at the root of these failures are the people who run these institutions, the bright and industrious minds who occupy the commanding heights of our meritocratic order. In exchange for their power, status and remuneration, they are supposed to make sure everything operates smoothly. But after a cascade of scandals and catastrophes, that implicit social contract lies in ruins, replaced by mass skepticism, contempt and disillusionment.
In the wake of the implosion of nearly all sources of American authority, this new decade will have to be about reforming our institutions to reconstitute a more reliable and democratic form of authority. Scholarly research shows a firm correlation between strong institutions, accountable élites and highly functional economies; mistrust and corruption, meanwhile, feed each other in a vicious circle. If our current crisis continues, we risk a long, ugly process of de-development: higher levels of corruption and tax evasion and an increasingly fractured public sphere, in which both public consensus and reform become all but impossible.
For more than 35 years, Gallup has polled Americans about levels of trust in their institutions Congress, banks, Big Business, public schools, etc. In 2008 nearly every single institution was at an all-time low. Banks were trusted by just 32% of the populace, down from more than 50% in 2004. Newspapers were down to 24%, from slightly below 40% at the start of the decade. And Congress was the least trusted institution of all, with only 12% of Americans expressing confidence in it. The mistrust of élites extends to élites themselves. Every year, public-relations guru Richard Edelman conducts a "trust barometer" across 22 countries, in which he surveys only highly educated, high-earning, media-attentive people. In the U.S., these people show extremely low levels of trust in government and business alike. Particularly distrusted are the superman CEOs of yore. "Chief-executive trust has just been mired in the mid- to low 20s," says Edelman. "It started off with Enron and culminates in Citi."
Such figures show that the crisis of authority extends beyond narrow ideological categories: Big Business and unions, Congress and Wall Street, organized religion and science are all viewed with skepticism. So why is it that so much of the country's leadership in so many different walks of life performed so terribly over this decade? While no single-cause theory can explain such a wide array of institutional failures, there are some themes in particular, the concentration of power and the erosion of transparency and accountability that extend throughout.
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