Biden Falls into the Trust Trap
The American public is not a fan of President Biden’s new pandemic mandate, which strikes many as draconian. Expect loud dissent and open flouting of the order. Republican governors will provide many with the necessary cover. Americans’ low trust in institutions and high political polarization may further weaken our confidence in public health authorities.
This public distrust is not irrational. Political officials have repeatedly violated their own rules. The CDC has made absurd recommendations and yet effectively declared COVID defeated in May. The FDA has been far too slow to approve vaccines, refusing to take reasonable risks to improve public health.
More egregiously, health authorities openly mislead the public. Anthony Fauci admitted that he did not tell the truth in March 2020 when he said that the public did not need to wear masks. He justified his actions on the grounds that he feared a mask shortage in hospitals. In December 2020, Fauci deceived again, misstating the level of vaccination required to reach herd immunity. In early 2021, a number of authorities, including the CDC, claimed that vaccinated people should take the same precautions as the unvaccinated, even as they knew that vaccinated people faced far fewer risks. In early June, the CDC claimed that more children were becoming hospitalized, but by the time of its announcement, hospitalization rates had already returned to previous levels.
Trust only makes sense if authorities are trustworthy.
In many parts of the country, citizens and public health officials have fallen into what I call a trust trap. This begins when an institution fails and then tries to cover its tracks. Eventually someone exposes the failure, people respond by trusting the institution less, and provocateurs fan the flames. Since mistrustful citizens are more likely to ignore the institution’s recommendations, its policies become less effective. It continues to fail, and people trust it less still.
Denmark’s example offers hope. Danish citizens and institutions settled into a high-trust equilibrium early on, allowing them to engage in social projects almost unimaginable in the U.S.
A few weeks ago, Denmark lifted all COVID restrictions. The government has declared COVID no longer a societal threat. Danes have reached an 86% vaccination rate, including 96% of people over 50 – and they have accomplished this without vaccine mandates.
Michael Bang Petersen, who advises the Danish government, stresses that Denmark beat COVID through bilateral trust – that is, trust between the Danish people and their officials. The best predictor of vaccine acceptance is trust in authorities managing the pandemic. In Denmark, trust has been high and stable.
Petersen argues that authorities must be transparent in their communications in order to maintain the trust of citizens. They must be frank about the negative aspects of vaccines. While negative reports reduce vaccination rates, telling the truth maintains trust, which matters more in the long run. Unlike American health officials, Danish officials did not mislead the public.
Petersen’s research group also found that successful mass vaccination requires that people see it as a collective, moral project. Though moral projects risk encouraging social shaming, Danes kept such instincts in check.
Health policy functions better if authorities trust citizens, too. Danish authorities could assume that citizens would follow their recommendations in good faith. They did not try to control the public’s behavior. They kept restrictions relatively light. In contrast, Fauci does not seem to trust the American public.
The U.S. pandemic response has not been a total disaster, but America has far less bilateral trust, and our citizens are radically politically polarized. Denmark’s opposition party supported the governing party’s efforts; in the United States, the opposition party has been overly critical. Finally, American media is far more partisan and dishonest than media in Denmark.
Institutional trust and political polarization affect the success of most public policies. But we must also consider the role of social trust – our confidence that others will follow established norms. Denmark is one of the most socially trusting countries in the world. America has transitioned from being a highly trusting country to a moderately trusting one.
Not all high-trust countries enjoyed Denmark’s success. Sweden comes to mind. So trust does not guarantee good results. But in the U.S., our options are more limited because trust is in shorter supply.
Denmark and the United States have different cultures and institutions. What works in Denmark might not fare as well here. But the Danish experience highlights the urgency of raising trust and lowering polarization in the U.S.
In the United States, government and health authorities must admit fault, take full responsibility, and tell the truth. The vaccinated must not harshly condemn the unvaccinated. Research on social norms suggests that shaming people can boost compliance with important social norms, but it can backfire when we shame those who believe they have done nothing wrong. Enforcing norms works when people accept them. Blaming people for violating norms they reject creates resentment, antagonistic behavior, and ongoing cycles of blame. Since the unvaccinated believe their mistrust of authorities is justified, they often respond to sanction with outrage. And the truth is, their mistrust is not entirely mistaken.
At the same time, if authorities improve their performance, the unvaccinated must be prepared to trust them. Much of our mistrust in authorities is misplaced. No one can responsibly deny that vaccines greatly reduce mortality and hospitalizations.
I wish that I were more optimistic about the U.S. situation. But the example of Denmark can teach us how to stop another COVID wave and escape the restrictions that we presently endure.
Kevin Vallier is an associate professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University, and the author of “Trust in a Polarized Age.”