Steve Chapman

Time and again, we are led into uncharted territory by leaders of one kind or another. We end up wandering in the wilderness while they proceed to the Promised Land.

The culprits bring to mind the description of the Buchanans in "The Great Gatsby": "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Is it any wonder that angry populism and dark paranoia now dominate our discourse? Is it any wonder that so many citizens harbor so much distrust for established institutions? In 1966, four out of five Americans trusted government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Today, four out of five do not.

The disenchantment is not just with politicians. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that most of us have negative opinions of financial institutions, large corporations, the national news media and the entertainment industry.

Even scientists have no great credibility. The more climate specialists converge in alarm about global warming, the less public support they find for measures to counter it. Asked to make sacrifices by experts who claim to know what they're doing, a lot of Americans think they should go hug a tree.

None of this facilitates rational policymaking or sensible use of our imperfect knowledge. It just fosters cynicism, nihilism and conspiracy-mongering. It suggests that honest, well-intentioned effort is a waste of time.

It leaves us all feeling like a Louisiana beach -- drenched in filth and very badly used.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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