In 2009, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style in which I argued that a loss of trust in our social institutions–and especially in our government–has had significant negative consequences for our ability to function as a productive society.
Things haven’t improved since 2009. If anything, our levels of distrust have continued to grow, and for good reason.
A couple of days ago, major news outlets reported the emergence of a legal memorandum generated during the George W. Bush Administration. There was evidence that the Administration had attempted to destroy all copies, for obvious reasons: the memorandum opined that the “enhanced interrogation” techniques being employed and defended by the Bush Administration were war crimes. Whether one agrees with that assessment or with the more accommodating analysis provided by John Yoo, it is clear that the White House was aware that their actions raised significant legal and constitutional issues, and that it was prepared to ignore both those issues and the rule of law.
It would be comforting to conclude that such actions were confined to one rogue Administration, or at least to the federal level, but evidence suggests otherwise; in fact, there has been a rash of disclosures of local-level prosecutorial misconduct recently. In Illinois, a recent investigation of the criminal justice system uncovered evidence that–among other improprieties–prosecutors had failed to turn over documents in their possession proving that a man convicted of double murder in 1992 could not possibly have committed the crime he was accused of — because he was in police custody at the time. (But the police managed to get him to sign a confession. It is estimated that some 25% of criminal confessions are extracted from people who are actually innocent of the crime to which they confess–another rather disturbing bit of data.)
Add to such unsettling disclosures the constant drum-beat reporting corporate misdeeds, and the pervasive belief that wealthy individuals are able to “game the system” in their favor–able to buy favorable tax treatment, able to escape regulation, able to evade the consequences of predatory behaviors, able to elect public officials that will do their bidding–and you get a level of cynicism that undermines social cohesiveness and our ability to come together to address the issues that face us.
When people no longer trust our governing institutions, it is easy to sell them conspiracy theories. It is easy to turn groups against each other. (Want evidence? Look at the recent disclosures about the tactics employed by the National Organization for Marriage!)
We can’t rebuild trust by wishing it back. It will take a national effort to insure that our institutions are trustworthy–beginning with government. Because if we don’t trust our common institutions–government, yes, but also the church, major league sports, businesses and financial institutions, none of which have exactly covered themselves with glory lately–we certainly aren’t going to trust each other.