Between 1988 and 1996, an epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) swept through Great Britain’s cattle herds. As unease rose among Britain’s beef-loving population, the Tory government appointed a blue-ribbon Advisory Committee (SEAC) to investigate what became popularly known as “Mad Cow Disease.” The Commission’s report was far from sanguine. Losses of cattle had continued to mount, and the government admitted that the source of contagion was probably cow feed that included animal detritus.

This was bad enough; but in March 1996, Britain’s secretary of state for health announced ten cases of something similar in another species: a new form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) had been diagnosed in human patients. CJD is a fatal disease caused by a rampant protein that eats away the brain cells of its victims, causing madness and then death. On the same day the ten cases of CJD were announced, SEAC scientists held a press conference at which they explained that there might be a connection between the human disease and BSE.

Were beefeaters doomed to be driven mad? What made the new reports so appalling was not just the idea that beef was potentially lethal — it was the evidence that the British government just wasn’t up to the challenge.

Accompanied by gallows-humor cartoons, by explosions of rage from Britain’s European Union (EU) partners, and by savage criticism of the government in the press and from the opposition Labour Party, the BSE affair marked what one expert later called “an unprecedented breakdown of communication between British citizens and their public institutions.” A cartoon in the usually-staid London Times “showed Rodin’s famous Burghers of Calais, one gagging, the rest looking pained and scornful, all tossing hamburgers off their pedestal; the caption read “‘The Burgers of Calais.’”

Domestic humor was followed by international humiliation. As consumers across the EU stopped buying beef — whatever its provenance — the UK government was forced to bow before the demand of its trading partners that virtually all the country’s cattle be slaughtered. The tragedy of this necessary decision aside, the eventual cost to the UK came to some $6 billion to shore up failing businesses and compensate farmers and slaughterhouses for their losses.

* * *

The loss of confidence in the British government in the wake of the BSE bombshell should not have surprised political scientists. As in other western democracies, there had been a dramatic decline in confidence in Britain’s leaders over the previous two decades; in the wake of the Mad Cow crisis, trust in government plummeted still further.

But all was not bleak in Britain: with declining trust came increased social activism, as citizens stepped up to meet the ethical and practical challenges of the emergency. As if to make up for the breakdown of public confidence following publication of the SEAC report, citizens turned to the still-robust British tradition of private associations: Farmers organized the mass slaughter of cattle, animal rights groups mobilized against the government, and the venerable Consumers’ Association pushed for a new Food Standards Agency independent of the disgraced Ministry of Agriculture. From Greenpeace’s militant pronouncements to the learned discourses of scientific societies, to the formation of survivor support groups, British civil society sprang to life, to fill the gap produced by the decline of confidence in government.

In the absence of a government they could trust, Britons looked to other institutions — their butchers, supermarkets, restaurants, and civil society groups — for information and advice on how to restore their security.

  • In the North Devon village of Bradworthy, about 1,000 people participated in a protest march aimed at the ban on British beef.
  • In Scotland, beef exporters gave away 10,000 worth of prime Scottish steak to protest inadequate government assistance.
  • In London, animal welfare campaigners associated with the “Compassion in World Farming” group vowed to lobby sites where thousands of unwanted dairy calves were to be slaughtered.
  • The National Farmers’ Union even ran a “Great Beef” campaign to lobby the EU to lift the ban on British cattle and help recover Continental markets.


We have seen a similar inverse relationship between trust in government and social activism in the United States as well. While about ¾ of the public trusted the federal government in the 1950s, trust in government eroded during the 1960s and 1970s, and stayed in the cellar for most of the successive decades. The 9/11 crisis temporarily increased the public’s trust in the federal government, only to have it fall to its lowest levels since, according to a PEW poll in 2019.

At the same time, activism — especially among young people — began to rise. We saw it first in the global justice movement, then in the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, and then — spectacularly — after Donald Trump’s election. American society seemed to be turning into what David Meyer and I called — in an earlier analysis — “a movement society.” Many of the new activists were women, sickened by the misogyny of the new president, and worried about his attacks on minorities and immigrants. They provided the base for a series of massive public demonstrations against Trump, and they fueled a large inflow of new Congressional candidates, many of them elected in 2018.

The Trump Administration soon proved itself as incompetent as its critics predicted, a quality that extended itself chaotically throughout government in the first two years of his presidency — and then came to a disturbing climax in the past few weeks, as the administration floundered in response to the Coronavirus crisis.

Writing in The Hill on March 15th, my colleague Glenn Alschuler summarized Trump’s handling of the crisis:

  • In late February, the president declared “We’re very ready … for anything.”
  • When testing proceeded far more slowly than it has in other countries ..Trump stated, “the testing has gone very well.”
  • The day after Trump opined “It will go away” and “It’s really working out,” [Infections disease head Anthony] Fauci predicted “The bottom line: it’s going to get worse.”

Faced with criticism of his handling of the crisis, the distractor-in-chief has placed the blame (as usual) on the Obama Administration. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” for defective testing kids, Trump said. “Because we were given a different set of circumstances.”

No wonder a majority of Americans (53%) told a YouGov poll in recent days that they do not trust Trump to tell the truth about the Corona virus and another 14% said they were “not sure” they trusted the President.

But the lack of trust in the government is only one side of the equation: As the Trump administration first stalled, then blamed, then lied, and then doubled back on itself when faced with the imminence of the pandemic, both institutions and activist networks at the grassroots of American society began to turn their skills and resources to the crisis:

As they often do, religious institutions quickly responded to the crisis. In Pittsburgh, Congregation Dor Hadash, within 12 hours of shutting down its religious services, formed a committee that called every member with a questionnaire about health vulnerabilities, social resources, and a reminder that members are standing by to do grocery drop offs. In Ithaca, New York, many of the college students send home by their institutions to avoid the virus volunteered for religious-run feeding programs like the Episcopal Church’s Loaves and Fishes.

Civic groups, many of them originating in the anti-Trump movement of 2016 and 2017, put their existing networks into motion. They served as magnets for unaligned groups to join their efforts for the infected and isolated.

In Philadelphia, a “Resistance”’ group has used Twitter to cut through the fog of official obfuscation. Elsewhere, multiple anarchist and radical organizing groups — drawing on their mutual aid tradition — have used Google docs to help organize local anti-virus activities.

In Pittsburgh, historian and activist, Lara Putnam, a contributor to Public Seminar, has put together a google docs document to gather information on grassroots activists’ efforts to combat the virus, provide accurate information, and shift their activism into non-face-to-face forms at a time when social distancing is critical to help to #FlattenThe Curve. Throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania, Putnam reports, there are growing grassroots efforts of this kind. She wrote me that “It’s striking but not surprising that at a moment when most layers of government are failing to step in and act decisively — failing to solve basic coordination dilemmas for the common good — people working in the anarchist tradition are first off the block with very concrete alternative strategies for collective action”.

In the midst of this global pandemic, the grassroots level of American society, alongside numerous mayors and governors, are rising up to fill the void in policy left open — nay, created — by a government that has had no trouble taking decisive action and even ignoring the rule of law when it has been in its political interest to do so.

I will leave to historians to try to understand why organizations as diverse as a Jewish reconstuctionist temple, an Episcopal Church, a Resistance group in Philadelphia, anarchist collectives, and grassroots activists across the country have risen to the challenge of organizing civil society to meet the gravest health crisis since the flu epidemic of 1919, as the leaders of our government stood by for while the current crisis was gathering force.

May they still be with us when Trump and his enablers try to cover up their disservices to the country in the elections coming this fall.

Readers who want to know more about these themes may wish to reference “Mad Cows and Social Activists” Ch. 12 in Susan J. Pharr and Robert Putnam, eds., Disaffected Democracies: What’s Troubling the Trilateral Countries? (Princeton University Press, 2000); and Marie Berry and Erica Chenoweth, “Who Made the Women’s March?, ch. 3 in David S. Meyer and Sidney Tarrow, eds., The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement, (Cambridge University Press, 2018.)

Sidney Tarrow is Professor Emeritus of Government and an Adjunct Professor at the Cornell Law School. He is the author of Power in Movement and, most recently, co-editor, with David S. Meyer, of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.