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Let's Talk
Where’s the Trust?

Collapsing social trust is the biggest problem we don’t discuss.

Published on: October 12, 2017
David Blankenhorn is president of Better Angels (, a nonpartisan citizens organization whose goal is less polarization. Follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.
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  • Boritz

    Every pundit show I watch that features conservatives and liberals at the same table (mostly FoxNews because CNN et. al. aren’t into this format) all appear the same. The liberals have a set of talking points which they focus on like a laser to the exclusion to all else. It’s pretty hard to get them to do anything but parrot these endlessly. Frequently the host has to shut them down for a few seconds to interject something that is not a liberal bullet point from a memorized Powerpoint slide, after which the liberal resumes hammering the Powerpoint content again until forced to relinquish the “conversation” once again.
    The liberals clearly are there to use the national TV time to promote their bumper stickers and for no other reason. Any other use of the time is to them an interruption and a distraction, and they hate to be distracted.

  • Dale Fayda

    The Left doesn’t believe in compromise. For them, no battle is ever over and no victory nor defeat is ever final. They’re fanatical and unscrupulous. Trust them? Nuts!

  • AnonymoussSoldier

    What do you expect? Out of control immigration combined with welfare means there’s little confidence in law and order, and there’s little incentive for immigrants to assimilate. Creates social stress. Beyond that, having a comparative handful of mega millionaires and billionaires outsourcing literally millions of jobs in just the last 15 years to make a little more money for their lavish, ostentatious lifestyles causes quite a few social problems as well.

  • QET

    We need to talk to each other. We need Americans who disagree profoundly with one another—Tea Party and Black Lives Matter, Trump supporters and Trump resisters, Southern Baptists and Unitarian Universalists—in the same room, listening to each other with respect and civility, reducing stereotyped thinking about one another by achieving accurate rather than imagined disagreement, and looking when possible for common ground and ways to work together.

    This already happens, every day. It just doesn’t get mentioned, except in extraordinary circumstances, such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and, yes, Maria; and Las Vegas. People who, according to the lineup cards of the tweeting media managers who ru(i)n current cultural and political “dialogue,” couldn’t possibly have helped one another and treated one another with decency and civility in those situations, because white supremacy, ___-phobia and ___-ism; in fact helped one another and treated one another with kindness and decency. A black kid at a country music (!) festival saves 30 people, gets shot, and is saved himself by a white police officer. This just isn’t possible according to the laws of Social Justice Physics. Another impossibility in the alternate universe of the Left: Trump declaring that the US will stand with Californians during the wildfire crisis. California, whose government has made a point of publicly disparaging Trump and refusing to enforce his policies. Trump, who is patently unfit for the office. Yeah, that Trump. (He must be up to something, right?). The Puerto Rico governor claims the Trump admin is running a good relief effort, but the mayor of San Juan accuses Trump of genocide. Yet ordinary folks are helping each other in spite of all the “talk,” finding “ways to work together.”

    What we actually need to do is to “talk” to each other less. Or rather, we need to ignore the most talkative talkers. To these people, “talk” means relentlessly inflicting their ignorant, one-dimensional monologues on the rest of us, day and night, via mainstream and social media. They want to forcibly drag us out of reality and into their alternate universe with its own social geometry and physics.

    • Anthony

      A subject (not directly related to either your reply or essay) of import as I understand your genus inclination: and I yet remember you informing me you ended your Atlantic subscription years ago but this is from Science section.

      • QET

        Thanks. Christopher Hitchens used to say that there is only one race–the human race. That’s good rhetoric, I’ll grant. However, on the general subject of the genetic basis for human difference, I will just note that humans share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees. So there is a mere 2% difference, yet that difference is everything. Despite the recurring claims for human unity based on biologic unity, human beings do not want to be the same; we want to be different from one another. Whether we emphasize that difference using the concept of “race” or some other concept is immaterial. If difference is not genetically produced then we will socially produce it. That does not mean we should not live an ethics of basic decency towards one another as human beings underneath our differences, but the ethical demands of decency are not nearly so extensive as modern politics would have us believe. And as I indicated above, those demands appear to have been met by Houstonians and Floridians and Puerto Ricans without their first having to be harangued or put through some mandatory diversity or social justice pedagogy.

        • Anthony

          You’re welcome and kudos to the late Christopher Hitchens; he among the literati got it right. Bottom line is the science has always since genome project distinguished between the social/political construct and genetic reality.

          • Angel Martin

            The same people who claim there are no racial group differences are the ones that want to ban specific breeds of dogs.

          • Anthony

            Disappear or better still help Canada.

  • Arkeygeezer

    I think this is a consequence of the Information age technology. People are expressing themselves more on social media than ever before. No longer is information channeled through the printed media or broadcast media exclusively. Now, information comes from many sources on the internet. In a diverse society like ours, you are going to have diverse opinions about what is going on, and whether or not it is good or bad for our society.

    We have a political system that responds to the social currents every two years in November. We have a Constitution that separates power so that no one faction can run things unchallenged. It is very inefficient, but better than any other way for free people to run a free society.

    • FriendlyGoat

      We have thought that more free expression leads to a wiser society. You and I are now living in the age which proves that assumption untrue. Gossip, manipulative messaging and our temptations to one-up each other on any or all subjects actually CAN create slight majorities of fools. We’re there in this country. And we may be there in many countries.

  • D4x

    “Talking TO each other” uses the wrong preposition. “Talking WITH each other” might work, if only anyone still knew how.
    Blankenhorn’s First Fallacy ( faulty reasoning; misleading or unsound argument): “After all, even the smartest of us don’t determine what is factual mainly by dint of personal investigation. We accept most facts on the basis of trust, as mediated through what we hope are reputable institutions.”

    If no one in America has enough critical thinking skills, or curiosity, to rely on primary sources, to distinguish between FalseFacts, and RealFacts, “trust” is only relevant if you, like Blankenhorn, have found a way to earn money peddling “trust” workshops, as yet another distraction from the dilemma that forty years of teachers have deliberately discouraged curiosity, critical thinking, and skills like ‘find the main idea in this persuasive essay’.

  • Anthony

    Where’s the Trust!

    “If conflicts don’t abate and sharp divisions continue to characterize how we think about democratic life, it is often for reasons that go beyond politics – it may stem from a larger cultural issue – from the fact that large numbers of people, of all stripes, increasingly venerate a kond of arrogance that is inconsistent with the fundamental demands of democracy. This peculiar kind of arrogance is about our own worldviews – an intellectual arrogance that reassures us with certainty about our beliefs, makes us resistant to information that would challenge them, and encourages the feeling that we know everything. This sort of arrogance can be appealing partly because it is sometimes mistaken for confidence and strength. But really, the arrogant culture, like the arrogant person, is more often reacting from a point of self-defensiveness. And as we know, self-defensiveness, in either a person or a community, can be deeply destructive.”

    David Blankenhorn’s essay asks where’s the trust. Well, social (civic) trust (a social obligation, perhaps) presupposes the existence of intrinsic values which are at stake in some course of action that may be altered by decision – removal of civic reciprocal trust. Essay leads off with Honesty, Reliability, and Integrity (as well as Post-Fact public debate) each an important societal value that is too commonly mouthed rather than rigorously practiced. Mr. Blankenhorn, thanks for the contribution and expect the counter rationalizations.

    Lastly, a wise mentor once told me that our well-being depends fundamentally on our recognizing and nurturing our basic duality: as individuals, with distinctive tastes and aspirations, and as members of a society, with responsibilities to and values share with others – social trust perhaps (the essay’s and Better Angel’s President message).

  • FriendlyGoat

    I lost my youthful trust when certain church people tried to tell me that every word of the Bible is true. I lost my adult trust when certain political people tried to tell me that high-end tax cuts create living-wage jobs. Both of those were decades ago, but today they are still the two “root” issues being pumped out by political spinners from The Right. There was no time in my lifespan when either were remotely true. It was a profound disappointment to me that people I WANTED to trust attached themselves to one or the other or both of those things and were (are) willing to hate me deeply for not going along.

  • Trajan Fanzine

    “but rather the widespread and growing belief among Americans that many
    if not most of their fellow citizens lack basic honesty, integrity, and

    Wrong….. here, let me fix this for you;

    ‘but rather the widespread and growing belief among Americans that many
    if not all of the Media and Government institutions, the people manning them, lack basic honesty, integrity, and
    reliability. ‘

    There ya go.

  • Tom Scharf

    Good article. Well balanced.

    “Make journalism more responsible.” I would use the words “Make journalism more representative”. If you go to CNN now it is a toxic sewer. It’s good for their bottom line but bad for building trust. There are probably 100 Trump hit pieces a day in the major media outlets, not just the usual suspects. Realistically it is journalism that is manning the flamethrowers at this point. Social media has allowed them to almost become a hive mind, their Overton Window is getting rather distorted compared to the rest of America.

    Academia is even worse, they have pretty much banned far right thoughts while tolerating far left thought. Both of these institutions believe they are “leading” cultural change while they are really just participants like everyone else. They should be studying it and reporting it instead.

    It is overwhelmingly suffocating the amount of smugness and disdain that come out of these institutions for their fellow Americans. Different people have different views, and it should not be the goal of these institutions to change the values of others. Academia and journalism are no longer representative of America and it would be wise for them to change that.

    • FriendlyGoat

      We can all do talk radio, Fox News and Breitbart, right? Then we’ll be fair and balanced, right?

      Never minding that, why don’t we “make journalism more representative” by putting a fairness doctrine on CNN—–and on talk radio, Fox News and Breitbart. And why don’t we put a fairness doctrine on religious messaging while we put one on academia?

  • Angel Martin

    If you think the “trust deficit” is bad now, imagine what it will look like if the economies of the West, including the USA, have another economic downturn like the 1930’s.

  • ვეფხისტყაოსანი

    I don’t see a problem with trust at the individual level.

    I do see a lack of trust in the government and the ruling class, exacerbated by improvements in journalistic practice over the past several decades, beginning with Chappaquiddick. Before that point, misbehavior by politicians and celebrities was simply not reported — unless one was “caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” Kennedy’s mishap was an edge case and, as it turned out, a leading edge.

    But knowing the peccadilloes, misdemeanors, and felonies committed by our betters does nothing to encourage us to trust them. We could only either (a) go back to the old system of omertà or (b) develop a better ruling class — and I don’t see that either is possible.

    A larger problem is the government itself: You could live on a farm that’s been supplying an income for your family for generations — then someone from the EPA comes by, finds a mud puddle, and declares your farm a wetland They then destroy your livelihood and fine you into bankruptcy. The IRS, as we have seen, is equally high-handed and capricious. As are OSHA, FHA, FEC, and the rest of the administrative state — and then there’s civil forfeiture, which can affect anyone at any time for any reason or none.

    If we really want to restore trust in government, we must destroy the administrative state. See Hamburger’s book for a scholarly explanation of its illegality:

  • Fred

    Seems to me the problem is one of fumdamentally opposed world views, completely incompatible notions of what human beings are, what they’re for, and what constitutes the good for beings of the human kind. One need not demonize one’s opponent to believe that the effects of his position are evil even if as a person he is not. For example, I can accept that a “progressive” is essentially a compassionate person who genuinely cares about discrimination against gays and still believe the effects of his favored policies are to oppress religious people and deny them their right to free exercise of religion, in which case, does it really matter what kind of person he is or what his motivation is? I can accept that a libertarian or a “progressive” genuinely believes that human beings in the womb are not “persons” and that abortion on demand is a fundamental right. I can accept that their motivation is a sincere desire to protect the rights of women. But if I believe that abortion is the illegitimate taking of innocent life for another’s convenience, i.e. murder, does it really matter what kind of people my opponents are or what motivates them? I can accept that a conservative genuinely believes that tax cuts will stimulate the economy and that he is motivated by a sincere desire to reduce poverty by as far as possible ensuring everyone the dignity of work. But if I believe that the effect of those tax cuts are to enrich the already well-off at the expense of the least well-off, does it really matter what kind of person the conservative is or what motivates him? And of course each of those examples works just as well in reverse. The problem is that in the decades since the 1960s all consensus about moral, political, and cultural matters has broken down. The gulf between us is absolutely unbridgable since we literally cannot accept our opponents’ position, no matter how wonderful they may be as individuals, without betraying our own most deeply held beliefs about what constitutes good and evil. And no amount of “dialogue” can possibly fix that.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    A very sophomoric and immature article. It isn’t a decline in “trust” (whatever that is) that is the issue but a decline in mediating institutions between individuals and families and the larger corporations and bureaucracies of modern society. One is more prone to trust someone in one’s own family but not so much in some government agency. Impersonality and social distance inclines toward less trust.

    Moreover, in the commercial and governmental spheres, a certain amount of distrust and social distance is required; that is why we have contract law and we have bureaucracies that operate on impersonal rules. Have you ever been to an eviction court? The one fault that landlords get into is when they start treating their tenants as “friends” or want to help them out of, say, religious motives. Invariably this fails when forgiven rent can’t be collected and tenants abuse landlords resulting in evictions. The problem is misplaced trust not a deficit of trust.

    Chinese who migrate to the US bring with them trustworthy family networks that are the basis of their economic livelihood. Many native Americans don’t have such family economic networks, except perhaps family business limited partnerships (which tend to be utilized in Jewish families in my experience). Americans value individuals; the Chinese, family enterprises.

    Yes, there is “class mistrust” but this is because the two main middle classes in the US are the New Knowledge Class or Government Class and the older Business Class. The defining sociological trait of those in the Knowledge Class is antipathy toward those in the Business Class, mainly because the Knowledge Class depends on some sort of subsidy or stipend from government which must be confiscated from the Business Class and, thus the Business Class must be excoriated and demonized. This class divide can’t be overcome by some superficial “trust walk”, therapy or merely “talking to each other”. There must be an institutional basis for trust.

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