Storm of political mistrust shakes our belief in democracy
Fresno Bee, October 8, 2016
A recent poll conducted by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only four in 10 Americans “have a lot of confidence” that votes will be accurately counted this year. One-third of Americans have “little or no confidence” in this year’s vote count.
The skeptics are often supporters of Donald Trump. According to AP, “Half the people who have a favorable opinion of the Republican nominee say they have little to no confidence in the integrity of the vote count.”
Trump has asked his supporters to monitor the polls. His campaign website calls for poll monitors with the following headline: “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!”
In response, Democrats warn that Trump poll monitors could intimidate voters. Democrats also worry about other restrictions on voting rights. And back in the Bush era, some Democrats suggested that votes were not fairly counted in places like Florida and Ohio. Some Democrats claim George W. Bush was illegitimately installed in 2000 by a politicized U.S. Supreme Court.
We seem to be in the middle of a perfect storm of political mistrust. If we are not careful, this storm can swamp our democracy.
In the words of Trump
One solution is for us to better understand the duties of fiduciary ethics. This idea was invoked recently by Donald Trump himself. In response to reports about his taxes he explained that he has “a fiduciary responsibility to pay no more taxes than is legally required.”
Trump-haters may be surprised that Trump could use such a big word. But he is right that fiduciaries should faithfully manage other people’s investments, maximizing profit and minimizing expenses.
The word, fiduciary, is rooted in the Latin word for “faith,” which is fides. We confide in fiduciaries because we have confidence that they won’t betray our faith in them.
A fiduciary should set self-interest aside and act in the best interest of the beneficiary. A fiduciary should be loyal to the client and care for the client’s well-being. A fiduciary should disclose conflicts of interest and not extract unfair compensation.
When fiduciary responsibilities are violated, scandals erupt. Wells Fargo violated its fiduciary obligation by creating millions of bogus accounts. The feds are looking into Wells Fargo’s breach of its fiduciary duty. A class-action lawsuit claims that the bank violated its fiduciary obligation.
Fiduciary relationships create special obligations. In most cases the fiduciary has more power and knowledge than the client. With that edge, the fiduciary could easily take advantage. Ethical and legal guidelines prevent the fiduciary from misusing power.
Like banks and financial advisers, lawyers and doctors have fiduciary responsibilities. We hire lawyers or doctors because we lack expertise and experience. But an average person often has no way of knowing whether a lawyer is taking advantage. Nor can an average patient know whether a doctor prescribes unnecessary treatments to enrich himself. We trust doctors and lawyers to care for our interests.
At the highest level, governments have fiduciary obligations. We trust that the government is acting to defend our interests. Governmental agents should not seek to enrich themselves or take advantage of their position. Bribery, misappropriation of funds, and similar offenses violate fiduciary duty.
Keeping the faith
Breaches in governmental ethics are especially serious because they undermine public confidence in the system. Voting irregularities, lying, nepotism, and other corruption causes us to lose faith in the system.
The Roman philosopher Cicero warned that society breaks down when the guardians of political life only care for themselves or their own party, while neglecting the good of the people. John Locke, the early modern English philosopher, went further. He suggested that when a government fails to live up to its fiduciary responsibility, a revolution could be justified. The American colonists followed Locke’s advice.
Which brings us back to that worrying AP-NORC poll. Our system is in serious trouble if we do not trust the most basic component of democracy – the voting process. It is also in trouble if we don’t trust the character of our leaders.
Without faith in fiduciaries and in the integrity of the system, society cannot function. Let’s hope that we survive the election-year hurricane, that we can rebuild bulwarks of good faith, and rediscover a reason to believe in our democracy.