The main toxin ruining our politics and coarsening our society is the loss of trust. Not Trump, or evil liberals, or the dishonest media, or right-wing populism, or insufficient fervor for this or that candidate or cause—but rather the widespread and growing belief among Americans that many if not most of their fellow citizens lack basic honesty, integrity, and reliability. Our loss of trust in one another is arguably our biggest social problem, mainly because it helps to drive so many others, from family disintegration to political polarization to post-fact public debate.
It’s also something we rarely discuss. We live in an age that favors almost exclusively the discussion of “them” problems—shortcomings that we can attribute to the bad conduct of a particular group. But mistrusting each other is almost by definition an “us” problem. It implicates all of us. As such, collapsing social trust can’t easily be construed—though how tempting to try!—as simply another thing to blame on Trump, or evil liberals, or the dishonest media, or right-wing populism, or insufficient fervor for this or that candidate or cause.
Evidence of our loss of trust in one another is clear and abundant. For example, a 2013 study reports: “Trust in others and confidence in institutions, two key indicators of social capital, reached historic lows among Americans in 2012 in two nationally representative surveys that have been administered since the 1970s.”1 In Bowling Alone, the great sociologist Robert D. Putnam similarly describes a decades-long U.S. trend of “declining generalized trust and reciprocity.”2
Today, three main types of mistrust course through our society. One is partisan mistrust: Americans increasingly believe that those with whom they disagree politically are not only misguided but are also bad people, members of an essentially alien out-group.
A second is class mistrust: The approximately 30 percent of Americans with four-year college degrees are mostly thriving; the other 70 percent are falling further and further behind on nearly every measure. Upscale Americans are increasingly isolated from and ignorant about the rest of the country, and large numbers of middle and working class Americans resent and mistrust the nation’s elite class.
And a third is governing mistrust: Huge numbers of Americans no longer believe that their elected leaders, including those from their own party, are honest or can be trusted even to try to do the right thing.
I saw these trends up close this summer with respect to Americans’ political views. With colleagues and a rented bus, and partnering with wonderful local volunteers, I helped to organized 25 workshops involving a total of about 400 voters in communities in Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Our purpose was to bring together “red” and “blue” Americans in roughly equal numbers to talk with, rather than simply at or about, each other.
We learned a lot about trust. For example, an extremely common belief today among both liberals and conservatives is that, if I know your position on an issue, I also know why you hold that position. Here’s how it can happen. You say that you want stricter immigration laws. I believe that stricter immigration laws would harm people of color. Therefore I conclude that you favor stricter immigration laws at least partly because you don’t care about people of color.
Or you say that you support Obamacare. But for me, Obamacare means big government stamping out individual choice. Therefore I conclude that you support Obamacare at least partly because you are content to let big government to stamp out individual choice.
See how it works? It’s a three-step mental process in which I glide seamlessly from your policy preference, to my understanding of the bad result of that policy, to my assumption about your bad reason for preferring it.
When you see this phenomenon occur over and over again—particularly when the two sides are in the same room, actually talking to one another, and therefore ultimately holding one another accountable—it becomes crystal clear that this formula for analyzing one’s adversaries generates far more heat than light, far more error than truth.
And why is this flawed formula so popular? One answer is that it encourages demonization, and demonization is all the rage these days. But that only begs the question. The deeper reason, I believe, is that mistrustful Americans find it increasingly hard to assume that their political opponents have decent or even rational motives. After all, it’s not natural or easy to assume that people you don’t trust have basically good intentions; in fact, it may not even make sense to do so.
How deep does today’s political mistrust run? Here’s one clue. We would ask, “Would you be interested in attending a workshop?” They would say, “Maybe, but I’m probably not who you want.” We would ask, “Why do you say that?” They would answer, “Because I base my views on logic and facts, and therefore don’t know how to talk to people on the other side.” Both conservatives and liberals earnestly offered us this insight.
Many Americans (and I’m one of them) are distressed by the rise of what appears to be post-fact political rhetoric, made possible by a political culture in which the flagrant distortion of truth is normative and in which determining what is a fact appears to be more a matter of tribal affiliation than objective reality. It’s all terrible.
But what gave birth to this culture? Trump? The dishonest media? The fact that Americans are no longer smart or curious enough to care about facts? I don’t think so. I think this culture emerged mainly because we don’t trust each other.
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. I believe that it’s a fact that more Americans in 2016 voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. But I didn’t count the ballots. I couldn’t even tell you how they were counted. I believe with certitude that Clinton got more votes than Trump only because people I trust told me she did.
Increasingly, Americans don’t trust anyone outside of their in-group to tell them what the facts are. As a result, what we believe are the facts is increasingly a reflection of the politico-cultural tribe to which we belong. Our problem is not that Americans have become disdainful of facts. Nor is it that my side respects the facts and your side doesn’t (as tempting as that is to believe). It’s rather that, in a declining-trust society such as ours, both the facts themselves and our ways of thinking about the facts begin to function less as public goods—things that promote shared thriving—and more as private assets which we use to define and defend our group and to attack the group’s enemies.
It’s possible, of course, that declining social trust is less the cause of our problems than the result of them. This argument has a familiar ring. Americans stopped trusting politicians when politicians, particularly in the Vietnam and Watergate era, stopped being trustworthy. Americans lost trust in many key social institutions—from marriage to political parties to organized religion to news organizations—when those institutions stopped meeting people’s needs and expectations. Americans stopped trusting people with whom they disagree politically when those people started embracing crazy, dangerous ideas.
I concede that there is real truth in at least some of these claims. But I’m more supportive of the opposite view. Even if objective social failures or other structural changes in society triggered and therefore help to explain the decline of trust, that decline is now spreading at least partly independently of those failures and changes, feeding on and perpetuating itself. Whatever may have ignited this fire—and that is a complex and necessary discussion for another time—it’s now burning in large measure on its own, wiping out social connections that are both fragile and precious.
What is to be done? Perhaps, in order to regain trust in one another, we need some big, sweeping changes. Reform our election laws. Change how Congress operates. Put an end to gerrymandering. Reduce the influence of money in politics. Reinvent political parties. Make journalism more responsible. Reduce inequality. Make society more just. I’m convinced that these and similar changes could contribute significantly to renewing social trust, just as I’m convinced that doing any of these things will be difficult because … we don’t trust one another.
So perhaps we also need to think bottom-up, and smaller. Maybe our first and arguably primary task is to do something quite basic: 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.
Talking to each other. As simplistic and quotidian as that prescription may sound, I’m convinced that, if more trust is the goal, there’s no getting around this requirement and no substitute for it. That’s why my colleagues and I are hitting the road again in a few weeks to participate in more community workshops in Minnesota, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee—only this time, we’re hoping that the organizers will establish ongoing red-blue “alliances” to continue to build relationships and work together in the community after the workshop is over.
One could think of it as trying to strengthen civil society, community by community. Or as trying to rebuild citizenship from the grassroots up. Or—perhaps this is best—as trying to help us trust one another again.
A guy from one of the workshops in Ohio this summer summed it up about as well as possible. He said, “You don’t hate who you know.”
1Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Nathan T. Carter, “Declines in Trust in Others and Confidence in Institutions Among American Adults and Late Adolescents,” Psychological Science 25, no. 10 (2014), 1920. Another recent study concludes that, since the mid-1980s, Americans’ trust in each other has “declined dramatically,” in part due to “generational replacement,” as “more trusting generations of Americans have been dying and being replaced by younger, less trusting Americans.”See April K. Clark, Michael Clark, and Daniel Monzin, “Explaining Changing Trust Trends in America,” International Research Journal of Social Sciences 2, no. 1 (January 2013), p. 7. See also Wendy M. Rahn and John E. Trasue, “Social Trust and Value Change: The Decline of Social Capital in American Youth, 1976-1995,” Political Psychology 19, no. 3 (November 3, 1998); and Mark J. Hetherington, Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism (Princeton University Press, 2005).
2Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Shuster, 2000), p. 142.