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..