Trust And Governance

When I was doing research for my 2009 book Distrust, American Style: Diversity and the Crisis of Public Confidence, I became aware of the considerable amount of data that tied social trust to the functioning of institutions–especially government.

What prompted that research, and the book that emerged, was my considerable skepticism of a widely-read study by Robert Putnam (author of the even-more-widely read Bowling Alone), in which he attributed America’s diminished levels of social trust to our growing diversity. I agreed that the erosion of interpersonal social trust had occurred, but I strongly disagreed about the cause, which I attributed to burgeoning evidence that much of government was untrustworthy.

I also saw the data as manifestation of a “chicken-and-egg” problem: were low levels of trust a cause or consequence of diminished trust in our government?

My research led me to argue that–partly because of the complexities of modern society and partly due to specific attributes of America’s political culture–generalized social trust depends on our ability to trust our social and governing institutions.

Fish rot from the head.

The issues are complicated, and I don’t intend to re-litigate the arguments I made in the book, but one clear lesson I took from my research was that social trust is incredibly important. (One of the reasons the collapse of a truly mass media is so consequential is that the rise of outright propaganda has contributed mightily to the erosion of that trust.)

We see the consequences of low levels of trust–in government, in medical science– in the refusal of too many Americans to get vaccinated, prolonging the COVID pandemic. We see it in the astonishing numbers who believe the “Big Lie” about rigged elections.

What prompted me to think about my former research was an article in the Atlantic, titled “A Trust Recession is Looming Over the American Economy.”

Manufacturer inventories. Durable-goods orders. Nonfarm payrolls. Inflation-adjusted GDP. These are the dreary reportables that tell us how our economy is doing. And many of them look a whole lot better now than they did at their early-pandemic depths. But what if there’s another factor we’re missing? What if the data points are obscuring a deepening recession in a commodity that underpins them all?

Trust. Without it, Adam Smith’s invisible hand stays in its pocket; Keynes’s “animal spirits” are muted. “Virtually every commercial transaction has within itself an element of trust,” the Nobel Prize–winning economist Kenneth Arrow wrote in 1972.

The article focused on the importance of trust to economic performance, and noted a little-remarked element of the remote work necessitated by the pandemic: one study  found that the longer employees were apart from one another during the pandemic, the more their faith in their colleagues fell. The article reported on a number of other studies that found similar “trust erosions” in the workplace.

As companies have gone virtual during the coronavirus pandemic, supervisors wonder whether their remote workers are in fact working. New colleagues arrive and leave without ever having met. Direct reports ask if they could have that casual understanding put down in writing. No one knows whether the boss’s cryptic closing remark was ironic or hostile.

The article reminds us that “Trust is to capitalism what alcohol is to wedding receptions: a social lubricant.”

The economists Paul Zak and Stephen Knack found, in a study published in 1998, that a 15 percent bump in a nation’s belief that “most people can be trusted” adds a full percentage point to economic growth each year. That means that if, for the past 20 years, Americans had trusted one another like Ukrainians did, our annual GDP per capita would be $11,000 lower; if we had trusted like New Zealanders did, it’d be $16,000 higher. “If trust is sufficiently low,” they wrote, “economic growth is unachievable.”

My own research noted the effects of diminished trust on business and the economy, but focused more on the widespread, negative consequences for governance and social amity.

In a complex society, we can no longer rely on gossip and informal interpersonal networks to tell us who is trustworthy and who is not. We rely on our social institutions, especially (albeit not exclusively) government. As I wrote in the book, when government does not function properly–when it intrudes into areas that are inappropriate for government intervention, when it violates the terms of our original social contract, or when it performs its necessary and proper functions in an incompetent or corrupt manner–it undermines social trust and cohesion.

The corruption of the Mitch McConnells and the corruption and incompetence of the Trump administration–aided and abetted by propaganda outlets pretending to be “news” organizations–have decimated the already badly eroded social trust required for democratic governance.

I for one don’t have a clue how to grow it back.


  1. Well, your research or blog post has blind spots. Certainly, by now, you can see that the GOP isn’t the only corrupt political party in this country.

    Also, certainly, you can see that so-called liberal news media is also propaganda. It just happens to be propaganda that you believe in or “identify” with. Yes, there is that word again.

    And since my ego identifies with it, I must defend it if attacked. That’s what egos do. They get scared and strike back.

    Trust is easy if we can be honest with each other. I open up and relax when I feel like someone is telling me the truth. When they are being manipulative, even my body senses the negative energy so it contracts in self-protection mode. Can you imagine listening to cable news all day?

    Oh, and those middle managers at work are fearful that their jobs will be eliminated so of course, they “feel distrust.” They are scared that their bosses will realize they don’t need them. Politicians are middle managers too. They say one thing to voters and then report back to their bosses at the end of the day. 😉

  2. Very timely commentary, Sheila. I recommend a thoughtful brief read published by Brookings entitled: A New Contract with the Middle Class authored by Reeves and Sawhill. “The U.S. is a middle/class nation. Since our nation’s founding, the American Dream has always been based on an implicit understanding – a contract if you will – between individuals willing to work and contribute, and a society willing to support those in need and to break down the barriers in front of them.”

    What Putnam wrote in “Bowling Alone” was focused on erosion of social capital: the initiative to enroll. Disengagement leads to erosion of trust. The pandemic and broader reliance on personal media have further disengaged individuals from trust of others, especially government, business and social institutions. When parents are not even aware it is the first day of school and fail to enroll their children, this is one of many manifestations that have far reaching consequences for collapse of a society we once knew. The answer is leadership to rebuild not to exploit for personal gain and power.

  3. The disinformation cabal intends to create chaos and distrust because confused people reach for an authoritarian who claims to BE the solution. As Steve Brannon fights factual reporting by “flood[ing] the zone with shit;” knowledge workers must instantly respond and disseminate correct information and persistently discredit disinformation sources. This is what we must do. Huge task, but America is threatened.

  4. “The consistent patter that emerges from our data is that … there is no left-right division, but rather a division between the right and the rest of the media ecosystem.” – Harvard University researchers in their book Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics

  5. All that distrust in the economy and the government begins locally. People believe what they see and experience before they believe reports of any kind. If grocery store shelves are half empty, if their favorite restaurant is closed because of a worker shortage, if their buying power is dramatically cut as prices are noticeably higher, and appeals to local government to address some basic need go unanswered, then trust in leadership is chipped away and that distrust makes its way to the national level.
    Instead of helping to find solutions to our problems too much of the media and too many corrupted politicians use these problems to cast blame and incite hatred and distrust. We seem to be at war with ourselves.

  6. One of the things that seem clear to me is that being a Republican starts by measuring everything by the dollar value of what is owned. Of course, the dollar value is essential to them because it ranks them in their hierarchy as to where they are in the order of things. The reason that owning is important to them is the sense of control. So that perspective gives them a military-like rank in that they know who is below them and who is above them and therefore who they can control and who they can’t question. Both are necessary illusions for them to live in to know their place.

    The public squabbles taking place are based on authoritarians marking their territory and liberals declaring themselves free. Freedom is important to everyone but some need fences to feel free and others need the absence of fences.

  7. Too few people have even a rudimentary knowledge of how government works. Too few people read. Too few people care.

  8. I would also add the current income and wealth gap that we now experience. Prior to the pandemic, the gap was as high as it was in 1928. Until we close the income/wealth gap, our democracy is at risk.

  9. Sandy – right on! The middle is slowly dissolving, middle class, middle culture, middle politics – all depend on community/national trust. We will be left with the left behind – who have no reason to trust anyone and the well off who are having fun…

  10. “The consistent patter that emerges from our data is that … there is no left-right division, but rather a division between the right
    and the rest of the media ecosystem.” Brings a new light on the issue, for me. Steve Bannon voiced his desire to bring down the
    whole thing, referring to the society, I believe, somewhere in 2016, or so may not have been intended to bring an Emperor to
    power, but it dovetailed well with Trump’s agenda.
    McConnell was a distrustful, and distrust sowing, personage before Obama became president, and he and Boehner had already instituted their
    authoritarian separation of the Republican and Democratic members of congress, leading to an apparent erosion of trust within
    that institution. I recall a Republican congressman retiring, years ago, because of, and specifically citing, his party’s insistence that its
    members not even have lunch with the opposition.
    And the rest is history.

  11. Sandy– Robert Reich would agree with you that the wealth inequality in our country is the primary driver of our divisiveness.

    Distrust is epidemic in our country. I would guess that the oligarchy has decided to conquer the middle class with the strategy of ” divide and conquer”. As long as people in the middle class are fighting with each other, the oligarchy and corrupt politicians win.

    Those who have been left behind in rural communities are angry at the the elites who have farmed their jobs overseas. Then they see immigrants as a threat to their chances of getting a well paying job. How dare they come here when they could get a job from a major corporate in their own country? What they don’t see is that most of these immigrants are fleeing autocratic, corrupt governments, violent gangs, or threats to their livelihoods due to climate change.

    Furthermore, the leadership in our country reflects the divisiveness in its citizens. I still believe this all started with Newt Gingrich who told the GOP to refuse to compromise with democrats.

    It appears that Biden is trying to decrease the wealth inequality with his “Build Back Better” bill. I think he is trying to get people to believe that the feds can work for the people, the greater good. But, of course, Manchin, is standing in his way due to his fear it will further increase inflation.

    It’s a tragedy that it takes something like a massive tornado or hurricane to bring people of different political stripes to come together and help one another. And it has hit Kentucky just as the pandemic surges again. And I wonder how many anit-vaxxers there are in Ky. They have fueled the increase in the nursing shortage because burned out nurses are leaving the field. They don’t feel their heroic efforts are making a difference due to the anit-vaxxers.

    That song “When will they ever learn?” is playing in my head again. Someone should alter it to make verses about anti-vaxxers and global warming deniers.

  12. As long as we allow “our’ elected officials to accept campaign contributions, we will be governed by agents of the wealthy few. Only a comprehensive public campaign funding system will stop this bribery. It will be difficult to get such reform, but not impossible.

  13. There’s real reasons why there is so much distrust of government. The government works for very few people. Unless you have the ability to pay thousands of dollars to attend a fundraiser dinner for either of the two private organizations controlling the government,you’re shit out of luck and nothing more than fodder for their agendas.

    One party believes when a human is born into the world is precisely when that party no longers gives a damn about that human.

    The other private organization gives applause to immigrants–until that immigrant becomes an hourly employee,then that particular organization no longer gives a damn about that immigrant.

  14. A lot of valid observations in all of above. But the roots go deeper. Trust is less likely when our society is so stratified – by economic status, ethnicity, neighborhood, school, work, etc. Until we find ways to bring all of us back into a common understanding of one another and respect, acceptance and support for those in responsible positions, regardless of party, trust is going to continually erode, with sorry outcomes for our communities and our country.

  15. I tend to react better to concrete examples. So here is one glaring example of why we do not trust some organizations. and why that is bad for us all

    Do a search for all available books by a certain author that are for sale in electronic form. One place you might do this would be on Amazon. The results will include – books by different authors (sponsored!), books that are not available in electronic form, books with titles or content similar to some books written by the author, some stuff is irrelevant and cannot be explained.

    Now ask to list these books in ascending order of price. The contents of the list will change in unexplained ways and certain books that are not free will be displayed.

    Question: Will you trust a business that communicates with you in this fashion? How will that change your purchasing decisions? How will that affect the economy if many companies adapt similar procedures of giving you requested information?

    This is an example of a dangerous “sort-of” lie. A constant barrage of these will slowly change us is by limiting our ability to determine what is really true. We will become so used to a constant barrage of “sort-of” lies that we will not recognize or value what is true. We will be so used to “sort-of” lies that we will expect everything to be somewhat untrue.

    This example may help people realize that a future without much trust is being created now. It is not a good future.

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