Distrust, American Style

A few years back, I wrote a book titled Distrust, American Style: Diversity and the Crisis of Public Confidence. (Still available on Amazon–hint, hint…). The book was a response–a rebuttal, actually–to arguments advanced by Robert Putnam (better known for Bowling Alone),  who had theorized that rising levels of distrust were a response to Americans’ growing diversity.

My own research suggested otherwise. Certainly, living in urban areas populated with lots of folks who look and act differently from you can generate some anxiety, but my reading suggested a different culprit: insecurity, exacerbated by crime and the lack of a social safety net.

A telling comparison can be drawn between the U.S. and Canada, countries with very similar cultural roots and environments. Canadians watch American television, read many of the same newspapers and magazines, and even have relatively high gun ownership rates–but far less crime and social distrust. What Canada does have that U.S. Americans do not is a strong social safety net, and most importantly, universal health care.

A recent study provides further evidence of the connection between economic security and social trust.

Greater income inequality, the team found, was correlated with lower trust in others, while greater poverty, more violent crime, and an improving stock market were linked with less confidence in institutions.

We might expect that people who live in constant fear that they are one illness away from bankruptcy, who live in neighborhoods where jobs are scarce and crime is rampant, would become wary and distrustful.

Ironically, however, income inequality is equally likely to create distrust and fear in wealthier precincts. Gated communities, booming sales of security cameras, the rise in “private” police, all testify to the insecurity of the well-to-do.

Poor people fear disaster; rich people fear poor people. And no one trusts anyone.

But hey–our taxes are lower than ever.


  1. I’ve posted these before but if you haven’t seen them, please take the time to do so. Understanding this is critical to understanding America here and now IMO.



    Us humans aren’t very discriminating sometimes with things that are good in moderation but bad in excess. Most everything is, but the border between good and dysfunctional is rarely clearly marked and often the way that we find it is to cross it and get confronted with the downside of excess.

    An example: We have all heard about overpopulation throughout our lives. It was easy to assume that someone would tell us when it happened, and we would react rationally. Now we’re here and surrounded by problems and threats caused by it and wondering why our luck as a species seems to have turned from good to bad fortune.

    So it is with wealth inequality. For most of us it’s abstract. We’re not the poor, we’re not the rich, so it’s other people’s problem. The haves have, the have nots don’t, human history in a nutshell.

    These two presentations come from different perspectives, one academic, one from one of the haves, but they both recognize the same truth. We’ve crossed the border into dysfunctional wealth distribution and it’s no longer abstract or someone else’s problem. It effects all of us every day. And, like many excesses, some leads to more and more and finally disaster.

    The end game is social instability. Unpredictable collapse of order and structure and productivity. We of course have read about it in history books and from the news, but the vast majority of us have no first hand experience with it. Compared to one case of Ebola within our borders, which we react with drama befitting a teenager, it’s virtually incomprehensibly bad for every single person here.

    It’s sensible to ask, what caused us to wander over the demarcation from sensible to insane wealth distribution. Who’s supposed to be watching that store?

    Well, we are. We think that democracy is about freedom and ignore it’s equal parts responsibility. More and more of us have allowed ourselves to couch potato into media robots programmed by those who benefit from extreme wealth distribution. We ignore the downside. In fact we repeat after the talking head, those not making it are lazy and if we treated them with less respect they’d magically have good paying jobs and social conscience. You know, like the good folks in the middle east.

    Even yesterday the conversation here was about oligarchy. Well, it’s the cause and the measure of our extreme wealth distribution. Money has become power. Power always corrupts. The have nots are being sacrificed at the alter of lavish living for the few.

    Those of you who know me see this one coming. The Koch Bros would like us to subsidize their assent from the middle of the richest 10 folks in the world to the very top. All we have to do is to pay for the damages caused by not stranding their assets: one to two million acres of Alberta mineral rights for the dregs of our, and their, oil bonanza. Of course what we pay will be orders of magnitude higher than what they will gain, but it takes some intelligent research to know that, and absorbing their media lullaby is so much easier.

    Perhaps we can yet save ourselves but we’re running out of time. Or, perhaps, we’ve run out of time. We’ll never know. All we can do is what we can do and hope for an acceptable outcome.

    Our life jacket is democracy but we first have to wrest control from monied interests. It’s our country, not theirs. Our will is stronger than their investments in mind control.

    Maybe. I don’ know. I just don’t know.

  2. Ah yes – the best security for folks in gated communities is for everyone else to be part of a comfortable middle class.

  3. Always interesting to remember how countries like Sweden and Ireland, which were some of the dirt-poorest countries in the world 100 years ago (in Ireland’s case, even 50 years ago), became more socially stable as they got more affluent and as wealth disparities became less extreme.

    Then again, countries like Sweden, Ireland, and Canada are more homogeneous than the U.S., and have not faced the same historic problems.

    But, an interesting video on the “Swedish supermodel” (not what it seems in the first 30 seconds): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDAQWJbEl9U

  4. Stephen. When I ask myself what evidence is presented in your video that suggests that it is objective I come up short. It seems like it began with a conclusion that it wanted to sell then searched for observations that might support that conclusion.

    My belief is that the less evidence that’s offered about any position the fewer possibilities are eliminated. In the case of the video I couldn’t confidently eliminate any possibility about the Swedish culture, business, or government.

    I offer this opinion not in criticism but as what I believe is useful caution in these days and times. There is much offered in all media that is, essentially, idea advertising. We need to take it with the same grain of salt that is appropriate for mechandise advertising.

  5. Pete, I take everything about Sweden and Canada with a grain of salt.

    We do have a lot to learn from these countries. But undoubtedly, the US faces different problems. I think that’s what the sociologist in that video, Charlotta Stern, was getting at. The same probably applies to differences between Canada and the U.S.

    (I did find it interesting that capitalism was not totally blown off in a video promoting Sweden as a successful social welfare state. And that parents’ sending their kids to schools that work is something that apparently is a success in Sweden. Though you rarely hear about Swedish schools that DON’T work.)

    One thing I think Sheila could also have mentioned: the social distrust and fear post-9/11. Let’s not forget that the current Prez authorized the NSA’s snooping activities.

  6. I did find the part about Swedish schools interesting. Don’t know the mix of public and private though and how their voucher system works. Or if they even have the problem there that we worry about here in terms of vouchers reducing the overall funding of education for all.

    I personally don’t believe that capitalism and social welfare are in any way mutually exclusive. When done well they should be complementary of each other. I suppose that public education is social welfare and where would business be without it? Think how better off business would be if they could get out of the health care business.

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