Back in 2009, I wrote a book titled “Distrust, American Style: Diversity and the Crisis of Public Confidence.” It was intended as a rebuttal to then-emerging arguments that America’s low levels of trust were a response to the country’s increasing diversity–that our differences had eroded our ability to trust our neighbors, and that interpersonal distrust had extended to our governing institutions.

As I argued then–and still believe–that conclusion gets it backwards. I think the degree of “generalized social trust” is dependent upon our ability to trust our social and governing institutions. In other words, when we cannot trust our government or the business community or religious institutions, that skepticism infects our views of our neighbors.

No matter which analysis is correct, the absence of that “generalized social  trust” is a major problem. Without it, systems cannot operate, authorities cannot govern. And the fact of its absence has been confirmed by numerous polls and studies.

As Governing Magazine reported in September,

The last half century has been a period of great disillusionment. In the 1950s the American people overwhelmingly trusted their government, their president, news sources, educational systems, and basic American institutions from the Justice Department to the Department of Defense. Today the American people are largely disaffected and cynical about those same institutions. A recent NBC News poll indicated that 74 percent of the American people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. According to Gallup, the American people’s general confidence in their national institutions is at an all-time low, averaging 27 percent, down from just under 50 percent in 1979.

In the last year alone the people have reported significant losses in respect for 16 national institutions: The police have a 45 percent approval rating, down 6; the American health-care system 38 percent, down 6; organized religion 31 percent, down 6; public schools 28 percent, down 4; the Supreme Court 25 percent, down 11; the presidency, 23 percent, down 15; the criminal justice system 14 percent, down 6; television news 11 percent, down 5; and Congress, as usual at the bottom of the barrel, with only 7 percent approval, down 5. And yet the incumbency re-election rate for members of Congress is nearly 95 percent.

The article reminds us that Founding Father Thomas Jefferson opined about the “social harmony without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”

An increasing number of Americans are convinced that our national institutions–especially government– are no longer working. In my book–written during the George W. Bush administration (which in retrospect looks almost benign)– I argued that fish rot from the head. In other words, news of multiplying, numerous scandals– about the administration, about businesses like Enron and WorldCom, revelations about abuses in the churches, reports of unethical behaviors in major league sports– had eroded the public’s trust in most of America’s institutions, very much including government.

As the Governing article put it,

Our national political system is in a state of advanced paralysis. The culture wars (broadly defined) indicate that we are at the very least two nations now, urban blue and rural red, and neither grants much legitimacy to the other. You hear people saying, “I don’t want to live in Nancy Pelosi’s America” or “I don’t want to live in Donald Trump’s America.” And yet, at least for the foreseeable future, we have to share the continent.

The article considered the potential reasons for the erosion of trust: perhaps–given the fact that we now have so much information and news. our cynicism and disillusionment aren’t irrational. Maybe we were naive before, and now we aren’t. But a significant factor  has been the drumbeat of  Republican rhetoric for much of the last 50 years.

The American public has been inundated with denunciations of government and government agencies, especially following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. (It was Reagan who said, “The top nine most terrifying words in the English Language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” )

Beginning with the Gingrich insurgency in 1994 and taking on more aggression in the politics of the Tea Party and more recently the Freedom Caucus, Republican anti-government conservatives have made their way to Washington, D.C., with the express purpose of dismantling parts of the national government…The Trump presidency was particularly corrosive.

It’s hard to disagree with the article’s conclusion that a nation is held together by trust in shared purpose and shared values, and  that national  cohesion is lost when we no longer believe that our fellow citizens share our values or merit our trust.

In my research for the book, I found substantial scholarship emphasizing the role of fear in generating distrust. Citizens in societies with robust social safety nets and low crime rates are significantly more trusting than countries where many citizens live more precarious lives. The implications of those findings should inform American policy.

Unfortunately, ideological blinders make that recognition unlikely..


  1. Republicans haven’t done the country any favors, especially in the last 40 years. I think (can’t prove it) that the absolute worst thing that has happened to our social discourse is 24 hour news. Add in the internet and the stew gets even more poisonous. Frankly there isn’t enough real news happening to fill more than three hours, so everything gets repeated again and again. Fill that time with pundits of every stripe and set them loose to fill our heads with trash, so we take up the leftover 23 hours and what you get are shouting matches, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

  2. Societies with more robust social safety nets seem to be more civil with each other due to less stress for those that must rely on the social safety nets and everyone else knows those safety nets are there if they ever need them.

    In this country if you don’t have the proverbial bootstraps to pull yourself up with…..well, sorry about your luck and if we find out you are using the minimal social safety nets that we do have we are going to look down on you and make you feel less than human.

  3. How does one get a large segment of a population to distrust its own government? Conspiracy theories are a good place to start. You use the public airwaves like radio for starters like Limbaugh did being sure to cover your lies with the old “many people are saying” or “it was reported in a news article”. It is then a small leap to television using claims that the network is just being a fair and balanced news outlet. The fearmongering gets bigger and bigger ratings, and so local news and even weather reports begin using the tactic. Instead of just the facts (who, what, where, and when) we are all exposed to endless speculation about some possible danger all headlined with the words “Could, might, and may”. None of it is real news reporting as all of it has become propaganda for either monetary or political gain. A decade or so of this and every person and every institution begins to be held suspect.
    Perhaps most damaging to the population is that we all become use to this constant state of fear… even addicted to the fear. It is after all a kind of excitement, an excitement that takes our minds off the often dreariness of our own lives.

  4. I would respectfully add that increasingly inefficient/ineffective governing is a root cause and is not new – many of us likely remember the $250 military toilet seats. Now, of course, we have the multi-billion giveaway of PPP funds to grifters, the otherwise wonderful child tax credit going to families making $250K, the recent Pentagon funding of $54B more than they asked for…and on…

    Not to mention all the CEOs and government officials who never go to jail for lack of oversight.

  5. Theresa, Nancy, Peggy. Excellent analyses.
    “even addicted to the fear” Good point. I found myself in a constant state of turmoil watching “news” on TV, but kept turning it on until I realized how it was affecting me. Several of my friends also said things like “I just had to stop watching. I couldn’t stand it anymore.” Recognizing when something is harming you is the first necessary step to making that kind of change. Now I filter what I see and hear through my improved lens. I’m still aware of it, but analyse it differently. I believe a significant number of other people are doing the same. I see some changes happening that give me hope.

  6. Well done Sheila, i still focus on immediate whys,i live in them with that majority. the majority of these untrustful people are the rank and no file of a governing society,or think they are,just add money,lots of it…society,working side by side with the working class seems easy,until they vote to perpetuate the same scenrio. the common understanding is there,its when they are left to decide,the needs and information doesnt make them change. like a confy set of slippers,they vote the status quo. they are in fact,too lazy to help themselves,while dragging down the rest. lazy doesnt mean tired,instead its a form of non existant anything else. they dont have avenues to secure their own thoughts,just a narrow ditch as they flow to the sea. their mentors have basically shut off the tap to any renewed intrests in anything but the shining. god raised families now have a chuch that spews hate and discord, with little reason to back it up, send that donation so we can keep our minds,mindless. societies/insitutions who suddenly have some sort of clout almost immediatly, have CEOs who are gaming the funds,and making sure the following wont think beyond its present ditch. a full audit of these witch like groups maybe need some real attention. where does that money you donate go? and which type of communications suck up and exploit it for more commercial profits? the true gaming picture is seldom seen or watched,unserstood. those who exploit the minds, have come a long way in communications to heard and saddle the people to follow for ,well look at the picture the biggest benifactor is still wall street.does communication skills in higher ed,only sell its grandure to a few greedy minds? or make a issue with exploitation for the money and power,any ethics here?,and that alone keeps the money flowing as needed.other peoples money, and you wonder why the working class cant get a grip. exploited t.v. is the biggest scam, the rich? didnt anyone mention how they get thier money and who exploits the scene to make ya throw it at them? its all a con game to keep the majority thinking about nothing,but their own single self. few of any who talk about a common cause,is really small potatoes when the big picture theres lots of money locked up in a few accounts, where the present economy will never see anything more than a few pesos because we allowed it to happen,while we sleep.. getting involved is apowerful tool, unfortunatly states have decided your education must be at thier own needs over the majorities needs. the majority question has become null/void when the elected in any office makes sure we dont step outta line and become bigger than some white haired pot bellied corp. manchins. we have elected those who use other peoples money,we have lost a vote,they,them the elected in most part of any convention,are aligned as the party dictates. (sign here MTG and shut up)those who see the majority as the democratic majorty,only get face value as the corprate manchins align us like ducks in a gallery. the vote has almost become trivial,and many in office sees it as a fossil.. educate and see where it goes, schools should not be prepping students to overlook the society they can create,they should be aware of wolf in trump like clothing..

  7. Stan: The Philippines is no prize winner in the democracy contest either. You may have found that out by now.

  8. Sharon: Sound practice! Saving one’s sanity is a top priority. I have also begun to try to separate myself from the nonsense. When our world becomes nothing but what passes for TV “news” and social media, we are in real trouble before we realize what is happening.

  9. If people don’t trust government, they don’t vote. Or, if they prefer caring about daily entertainment, they take the time to vote…

    “Elon Musk asked Twitter users whether he should step down as the head of the company, promising to abide by the results of his poll. .. Within minutes, more than one million people had voted.” NYT this morning.

    Says all you need to know about today’s culture. ICIO

  10. A powerful column. Responders in this space felt a need to agree, but didn’t tell us what they are doing to reverse the trend. I meet frequently!, in person!, with friends and seek to make new friends. Each of us can work to broaden a network of trust.
    Time is the greatest asset we have and how we allocate it is our most important choice in life .

  11. The 24-hour news cycle, the 24-hour news channels. Is it a coincidence that with the Advent of 24-hour news channels, the trust factor in society has plummeted?

    We can look at one specific point in our recent history that had the most effect on our perception of the world, it was probably August of 1990. The Gulf war operation ‘Desert Storm’ and operation ‘Desert Shield.’

    With the start of this conflict came the 24-hour news channels. And you could watch feed from these conflicts anytime day or night.

    But what happens when the conflict is over? Well we can see what happened. The talking heads ran out of stuff concerning the conflict, so they had to magnify other issues. They had to keep the audience captive. Ratings were off the charts, and they needed to keep it that way.

    This corresponded greatly with The introduction of the worldwide Web and personal computers. And then later on, social media and the cell phone.

    24-hour information became 24-hour propaganda, the captive audience needed to be fed. And feed they did!

    Rupert Murdoch was one of the biggest progenitors concerning the 24-hour news cycle when he brought his shenanigans to the United States purchasing 20th century Fox, Harper Collins, and later on the Wall Street journal. These entities took on Murdoch’s subversive style and personality, and you see what we have today!

    All the copycat 24-hour news entities had to figure out how to be an antithesis to Fox, so they had to constantly pound their own brand of propaganda into people’s ears to acquire a share in the 24-hour news cycle.

    So when no conflict was occurring, you had dalliances by Congress or corporate shenanigans or social unrest magnified way beyond their significance. We were able to watch conflicts everywhere in the World, and then, more and more computers linked to the internet, social media which gave lunatics and conspiracy theorists a huge platform, and of course that window to the world everyone has been carrying in their pocket.

    So pick your poison, what blathering nincompoopery is most appealing? It doesn’t matter, because it’s all nonsense wrapped up as urgent newsworthy facts.

    So, draw a line from Murdoch’s dalliance with Fox in 1985 all the way through the Gulf conflicts and every other issue you can imagine, until today. And you can see the effect the 24-hour news cycle, personal computers, the internet, social media, and cell phones, changed society for the worse.

    All of the lunatics who should never have had a voice were given a mountainous platform to spew their manure from. The higher the platform the better the coverage. A sh!t show for the ages!

    And, it has no signs of slowing down, just becoming even more divisive than it already is. It’s the monster that Frankenstein created, and it will end in the demise of its creator.

    I would advise everyone to turn off their television, you will feel better. Don’t look at the world through their lens, don’t adopt their opinion, treat folks the way you want to be treated, and conduct yourself conscientiously, through your conscience! It really is like a breath of fresh air!

  12. Trust is built via telling truth and helping people lead better lives: many corporations, politicians, private equity firms, religious leaders, etc. do neither/the opposite quite blatantly; so why are we surprised about the result?

  13. It would be great of certain individuals here would actually have an original thought, or even a functional thought process, without having to glome on to coattails for a pseudo thought. 😒

  14. John P Sorg; it would be great if you would actually have original thoughts or even a functional thought process rather than plagiarizing much of your commentary from your Bible. I have been wondering if your Bible thumping and sermonizing can be considered proselytizing here on Sheila’s blog? Just askin’

    Trust is not built on faith but on fact; which is why separation of church and state is fundamental to maintain democracy and Rule of Law and support the Constitution of the United States of America. I just watched the final public hearing of the January 6th Committee who investigated in depth for facts to provide the evidence that Donald J. Trump, et al, are guilty of High Crimes and Misdemeanors and will forward their conclusions to the Department of Justice for action. We must now TRUST the DOJ to take action Trump, et al, and to prevent such criminal actions by a president from recurring in the future.

  15. It might be a little late for a correction, but my post should read “the leftover 21 hours.” I would have caught it sooner, but I don’t always have time to track everything, since I like to keep busy doing stuff with real people.

  16. Yes, JoAnn! Yes, Yes, Yes! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all. Let there be peace on Earth, good will to men (women, too!) Happy Hanukkah during this beautiful Festival of Lights. Joyeux Noel, Mele Kalikimaka, and many more greetings of the season!

  17. Ms JoAnn,

    If you’re going to accuse someone of plagiarism, it would be best if you actually learn what plagiarism is! I know it’s difficult, maybe an Alzheimer’s issue? Not sure, hope you’re feeling better.

    Plagiarism is not giving credit for someone else’s work and passing it off as thier own! So, I’ve never done that! Because I quote, and then I agree! Authors, politicians, religious leaders, scientists, all quoted, all credit given! I suppose your pseudo religious Catholic upbringing hasn’t taught you proper conduct! Too bad.

    Yes JoAnn! Yes, yes, yes!

    Still not an original thought, pseudo or otherwise, lol!

    So I’ll let you birds of a feather get back to stitching your Christmas comforter or knitting your Christmas sweaters! By candlelight?

    Thank you Antonieta Contreras (Texas A&M 2008) for pointing out The clutch of BPD suffragettes concerning the cause and effect of their problems.

    I understand that their proselytism has lurched them to their particular opinions or party, I hope they find what they’re looking for, and, stop barking up the wrong tree!

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