Talking Points

The financial crisis crushed America's trust in elites. COVID-19 hypocrisy might just finish it off.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser on Thursday announced a revived indoor mask mandate in her city — even for the vaccinated — would begin early Saturday. Then, Friday evening, she celebrated her birthday with a maskless, indoor bash. On Saturday evening, after the mandate took effect, she officiated a wedding, where, photos show, she went maskless indoors. (Bowser's office says she was actively eating and drinking and thus not violating the mandate. The images don't settle that question, but they do clearly show other guests dancing maskless.)

Bowser is far from the first official to apparently flout her own pandemic diktat, and each new story like this invites public revolt. I mean "revolt" as a reference to its use by former CIA media analyst Martin Gurri in his 2014 book The Revolt of the Public: And the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

In the recent past, the "political and expert classes claimed competence over settled truth," Gurri says. "Those at the top decided signal from noise, knowledge from fraud, certainty from uncertainty. The public and mass media embraced this arrangement. All things being equal, authority was trusted and relied on."

No longer. Now, "we drown in data, yet thirst for meaning. ... And the more you know, the less you trust, as the gap between reality and the authorities' claims of competence becomes impossible to ignore," leading to "a radical disillusionment with the institutions of settled truth."

Gurri labels the 2008 financial crisis a major accelerant of the shift he describes, in which experts and the political elite they advise are bleeding legitimacy in the eyes of the modern public. Were he writing today, I suspect pandemic guidelines — and politicians who break them — would be Gurri's focus. The housing crisis had broad effects, but it didn't reshape daily life the way the pandemic has. Elite failures here will perhaps irreparably damage the expert-public relationship.

That's an outcome we could avoid if, as Gurri advises, authorities could learn to be humble and honest, to "discar[d] the pose of papal infallibility, and spea[k] about uncertainty, risk, and trade-offs," to demonstrate "integrity in life and work," and to announce their own errors. Experts do get a lot correct, and indeed make possible modern life. What we need is not so much authorities who are right more often, but rather authorities who are virtuous enough to freely admit when they are ignorant or wrong.