The news comes in a torrent these days, with nearly each day delivering a bombshell. It can be hard to not to become numb in such an environment or fall into a glum, hardened cynicism. It can be especially difficult when you see powerful people plainly saying one thing and doing quite another, as we saw in spades this past week. There was the precipitous fall of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a vocal champion of the #MeToo movement, brought low after he was accused of viciously abusing women (see Best Columns). There was Facebook, vowing to finally get serious about protecting users’ privacy and then launching—of all things—a dating app, where it will gobble up even more personal data (see Technology). And there was the first lady announcing on the White House lawn a campaign to fight cyberbullying while her husband, a prolific cyberbully, looked on from the front row (see Last Word). In each case, the dissonance was jarring, making you wonder if we’ve all fallen into an Alice in Wonderland world where up is down and down is up, and no one in power can be believed.
It’s no wonder Americans’ faith in once trusted institutions is in decline. The public’s trust in government, the media, and even one another this year recorded its steepest drop in the nearly two decades that polling company Edelman has been tracking it. People don’t believe that politicians are working in their best interests or that journalists can be objective arbiters. And the more they see how things actually work, and how powerful people actually behave, the more cynical they become. It often feels as though we’ve lost institutions and the media as our social and political referees, and in their absence we’re left only with our ability to discern fact from fiction. In the political matches yet to come, what will happen when we can’t even agree on the rules of the game?