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..


It Isn’t Just the Groping

Women voters need to reject Donald Trump decisively. Not simply because he is a pig who evaluates us solely on the basis of our looks (or because, as an Australian parliament’s motion put it, he is “a revolting slug”). Not simply because he clearly feels entitled to grope those of us he considers to be “tens.” And not even because he advocates “punishing” those of us who have the temerity to believe we should be able to control our own reproduction.

We need to reject him because even if he were a competent and informed candidate, he would never pursue the policies women need to achieve parity in the workplace. recently revisited the inequities of the workplace–the realities that working women face, and our lack of progress toward genuine equality of treatment and compensation. The gender wage gap hasn’t improved in years–women make 79 cents for every dollar a similarly employed man makes, a number that hasn’t moved since 2007.

As ThinkProgress reported, the wage gap closed at a relatively rapid pace between the late 1960s and 1990s, but that progress has “all but flatlined” since 2000. A slowdown in women’s wage growth–growth that helped narrow the gap in earlier decades, has come to a standstill. (In fact, that standstill has affected all wage earners, not just female ones.)

Not surprisingly, the story is even grimmer for women of color.

Women make less than men, on average, for a number of reasons. About 10 percent of it is thanks to different work experience, often because women are much more likely to take breaks from work to care for family members. The drop of women in the labor force over the last decade can be tied to the country’s lack of paid family leave, child care assistance, and support for flexible schedules.

Some of it is also due to the fact that women end up working in areas that tend to pay less. But that doesn’t mean they can escape the gap by choosing different paths. They make less in virtually every industry and every job. And while getting more education boosts earnings, women make less than men with the same educational credentials at every level and even make less than their former male classmates when they graduate from top-tier universities.

Social attitudes that promote discrimination in the workplace are often not recognized as unfair; employers who have been socialized into older attitudes about gender tend to see differential treatment simply as recognition of “the way things are.”

Studies have found that people of both genders are inclined to give men more money, especially if the woman is a mother. Meanwhile, women’s job performance is continuously underrated compared to men’s.

It’s tempting to believe that 21st Century Americans have moved beyond gender stereotypes, but even the most reasonable efforts to achieve workplace equality continue to encounter substantial resistance. A majority of Republicans–including 2008 Presidential candidate John McCain–opposed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which required equal pay for men and women doing the same job. They resisted re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. And they continue to oppose other measures that other nations have put in place to ease the balance between work and family, like paid family leave and child care assistance.

Donald Trump is far from a typical Republican, but on matters of gender equity, he has proven to be even less progressive than his putative party. The behaviors and attitudes that his son has approvingly called “Alpha male” would reverse the already far too incremental progress toward women’s equality, and take us backward by legitimizing attitudes about gender not seen since the 1950s.

Of course, the effect on women’s equality might not matter, since the election of this narcissistic buffoon would probably signal the end of the world as we know it.


What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

This is the last full day of our cruise, and it is raining–something that distresses Tom, who tells me that climate change has affected weather patterns in Croatia. He insists it never rained two days in a row during the summer season until very recently. (We have had rain on this cruise, but so far, at night or a brief shower.)

Tomorrow, we go to Split, where we will have three days before heading home via Rome.

Bob and I are both glad we came to Croatia. There may be a more beautiful place somewhere on the planet, but somehow I doubt it. Certainly, there can’t be one with nicer people.

This has been our longest trip ever. So–as our adventure nears conclusion, what have I learned on my summer vacation?

Well,  first, there is the obvious: people in Europe are much thinner, and if looks can be trusted, much healthier. They are also far more likely to be bi or tri-lingual, probably as a result of living closer together, and the demands of tourism and commerce.

Then there are more impressionistic lessons, with the caveat that the plural of anecdote is not data, and the people with whom we interacted cannot be assumed to be representative.

Unlike in the US, we have encountered no one who expressed contempt for education; no one who sneeringly dismissed expertise or intellect as ‘elitist.’ I have also been struck by the nature of informal political discussion and debate–I have heard lots of “these people make a good point, but those who disagree also have a point”–arguments employing much  less name-calling and much more consideration of the merits of competing arguments and points of view.

Then there were the issues we were questioned about repeatedly: American gun laws, the large numbers of people who reject evolution and global climate change, and America’s incomprehensible lack of a universal medical system. These aspects of American culture do not evoke admiration, to put it mildly–although people are generally too polite to criticize  directly. Instead, they ask questions, trying to understand why we haven’t joined the rest of the western world.

These questions have reminded me once again that ‘American exceptionalism’ originally referred to our outlier status, to sociological distinctiveness– not to some assumed superiority. Heretical as it may seem, there is the possibility there are some things we could learn from others.