Reimagining a Politics of Trust

Not everyone is out to get you


| September-October, 2009



Trust Politics

image by Adam Niklewicz / www.illustratorusa.com

The following is part of a series of articles on reimagining politics beyond the pundits. For more, read  Post-Pundit America  ,  Liberals Aren’t Un-American. Conservatives Aren’t Ignorant.   and  Daring to Accept Our Differences .

“Trust no one.”

That was the slogan of The X-Files, the TV drama that followed two FBI agents on a quest to uncover a vast government conspiracy. A defining cultural phenomenon during its run from 1993 to 2002, the show captured a mood of growing distrust in America.

Since then, our trust in one another has declined even further. In fact, it seems that “Trust no one” could easily have been America’s motto for the past 40 years—thanks to, among other things, Vietnam, Watergate, junk bonds, Monica Lewinsky, Enron, sex scandals in the Catholic Church, and the Iraq war.

The General Social Survey, a periodic assessment of Americans’ moods and values, shows an 11-point decline from 1976 to 2008 in the number of Americans who believe other people can generally be trusted. Institutions haven’t fared any better. Over the same time period, trust has declined in the press (from 29 to 9 percent), education (38 to 29 percent), banks (41 percent to 20 percent), corporations (23 to 16 percent), and organized religion (33 to 20 percent). Gallup’s 2008 governance survey showed that trust in the government was as low as it was during the Watergate era.

The news isn’t all doom and gloom, however. A growing body of research hints that humans are hardwired to trust, which is why institutions, through reform and high performance, can still stoke feelings of loyalty, just as disasters and mismanagement can inhibit it. The catch is that while humans want, even need, to trust, they won’t trust blindly or foolishly.