Liberal Patriotism and the Trust Crisis That Isn’t

Pete Buttigieg is a fascinating figure. This isn’t to say that his policies or beliefs are unique, but his popularity among Democrats is something I’ve had a passive awareness of for the past year. This intrigues me, because I see very few things in Mayor Pete that make him stand out among other reformist liberals; moderates do not interest me, nor do appeals to “normalcy” or “American values.” I’m not a liberal, granted, so it’s often difficult for me to understand what people see in liberal candidates. To his credit, Buttigieg is an incredible speaker, and in his latest appearance on NPR’s All Things Considered, he managed to articulate the largest gap between genuine radicals and anti-Trump liberals: the significance of trust.

Buttigieg, in his new book, Trust: America’s Best Chance, claims that a major problem in the current political climate is a “trust crisis,” as Americans have become overwhelmingly skeptical of law enforcement’s ability to keep the peace and their representatives’ ability to make good decisions. The decision to use “trust” as a framework, on the face of it, isn’t the worst idea; recent surveys from the Pew Research Center indicate that only 20% of American adults trust our government to “do the right thing,” so Buttigieg’s hypothesis appears to have some validity:

[These results reflect] the broader reality we’re living in — a combination of our political reality and our media environment — that has really created what I view as a threefold crisis in trust,” Buttigieg says. “Trust in government to do the right thing, trust in one another, and even global trust in the United States as a whole. And we’re not going to be able to navigate that if we can’t at least agree that we’re living with the same facts.

Buttigieg attempts to connect this to systemic racism, claiming that reciprocal trust between Black Americans and “any number of institutions that have proven to be untrustworthy” is a significant factor. He also applies the framework to foreign policy, describing “trust” as a sort of tactical asset in diplomatic efforts, and, regarding domestic policy, emphasizes the role of the “tools [encoded within the constitutional system] to make it better and to make our institutions more trustworthy.”

Though he is far from the first person to make a big deal about “faith in the American system,” Pete’s delivery is refreshingly blunt. As Bernie Sanders relentlessly went on about “fighting the big corporations” and Andrew Yang pushed for a Universal Basic Income, Pete Buttigieg spoke to the desire for the state to govern silently while we trust that it’s doing its job.

This “trust crisis” has people panicked and afraid, especially those of us most dependent on the state, but that fear isn’t necessarily permanent. Eventually, people seek out new sources of comfort, different service providers — entities and individuals who deliver on the promises they make. In the case of the “trust crisis” we’re experiencing now, many groups are effectively meeting the demand for alternatives to government services. No, I’m not talking about corporations and “privatizing” public services, but genuine, decentralized efforts to keep people secure, safe, and, most importantly, free. Apps such as Cell 411 allow users to create their own safety networks without state oversight or armed response, militia groups are responding to the demand for community self defense against fascists and cops, riot medics attend rallies to provide free service to injured protesters, Food Not Bombs provides home-cooked meals for people in need — the list expands on a daily basis.

These alternatives wouldn’t exist in such a high quantity if not for the “trust crisis” that drove people away from the state. What we’re experiencing is not an unwarranted lack of trust in a single administration, but a healthy response to repeated, shameless, non-stop betrayal. Instead of maintaining peace, cops maintain chaos; instead of fighting corporations, the government protects them; instead of preserving democracy, the government assassinates foreign leaders and replaces them with dictators; instead of going towards “freedom and justice for all,” our taxes are used to build concentration camps for political dissidents, immigrants, and whatever “enemies of the state” end up on the president’s shit-list.

All governments are guilty of at least some of these atrocities. My point is not that America is uniquely terrible, but I think it’s especially important to recognize, as the November election draws nearer, that most liberals don’t think this is an inherent systemic problem. While the worst of them dismiss outsourcing and foreign intervention as “necessary evils” in an otherwise beneficial system, most centre-left folks who realize the extent of these atrocities are unwilling to entertain the notion that reformism might not work. This is not a great foundation for radicalism, nor for tactical unity, and it’s naive to act like it is.

When we talk about what the next four years might look like under a Democratic administration, we need to remember that these people aren’t failed leftists. Liberals do not want to abolish the state, nor do they want to defund and abolish the police, and they especially don’t want to think about how much all of this shit costs. Much like the conservatives they claim to oppose, liberals still claim loyalty to the nation, believe we need cops to “keep the peace,” and want the US to be one of the most powerful nations on earth. Liberals, in their own way, just want to make America great again.

Pete Buttigieg is right, we are in a crisis, but it’s not one that can be solved with faith in the constitution or trusting men with guns to play nice; trusting the constitution to protect democracy and trusting cops to not abuse their power is what allowed our government to fail so miserably in the first place. A lot of people right now seem to be in an abusive relationship with the state; every conceivable red flag has been raised, yet they refuse to cut ties because they don’t think they can survive without it. If we don’t move on soon, losing the 2020 election to a fascist will be the least of our worries.

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