Reimagining a Politics of Trust

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The following is part of a series of articles on reimagining politics beyond the pundits. For more, readPost-Pundit America,Liberals Aren’t Un-American. Conservatives Aren’t Ignorant.andDaring 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.

Some researchers, such as Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam, have argued that our collective loss of trust is the result of a profound generational shift. Americans born roughly between 1910 and 1940 were a particularly civic and trusting generation, forged in the crises of the Great Depression and World War II, which required people to rely on one another and band together. Government dealt with these crises effectively through New Deal programs and military victory over the Axis powers, winning the confidence of its citizens. That generation is dying out and being replaced by citizens who are increasingly incredulous. (Consider, for example, the baby boomers, who coined the slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”)

A series of interviews, conducted in 2001 by Harvard University’s GoodWork Project, revealed an “overwhelming” distrust of politicians, the political process, and the media among teenagers.

But why?

One theory is that interpersonal trust depends on how much contact people have with others, and modern-day Americans are measurably more isolated than their elders. They have fewer close friends and are less likely to participate in voluntary organizations, like a bird-watching group or a church choir.

Experiments, as well as experience, show that people are less trusting of strangers. Researchers found that even when they created pseudo-groups by randomly giving study participants instructions on differently colored pieces of paper, the participants trusted members of their color “group” more than they trusted others.

Other studies suggest that the rise of electronic media as a major source of entertainment and news exacerbates isolation, and this can lead to a decline in trust. When the GoodWork Project ran a series of focus groups with adults in 2004, researchers “found that individuals typically blame the media for loss of trust.”

Again, the effect appears to be generational. “Most of the young people we interviewed have a default stance of distrust toward the media,” says Carrie James, a research director at Project Zero who collaborated with GoodWork. Young people feel less tied to larger institutions and American culture, James says–they might trust family and close friends, but “they don’t have good mental models” of how to trust more distant figures.

Economic disparities are also a contributing factor. Inequality in America declined during the mid-20th century, when our most trusting generation came of age, but the gap between rich and poor has since widened dramatically: From 1979 to 2006, for example, the after-tax income of the richest 1 percent of Americans increased by 256 percent, but it increased only 11 percent for the poorest one-fifth of Americans (who make an average of $16,500 a year).

According to a 2007 report from the Pew Research Center, people feel more vulnerable when they’re at a social disadvantage, which is why people on the short end of the American Dream are more reluctant to trust.

The evidence suggests that while it’s difficult to convince people to trust a stranger or a little-known neighbor, facilitating greater trust in institutions would lead to greater faith in our fellows. And that doesn’t mean a series of vague, unsupported slogans designed to increase fealty to banks, or religious institutions, or even the office of the president. For institutions to be able to promote interpersonal trust, Americans must be able to trust that leaders and institutions will do what they say they are going to do–keep our money safe, protect our freedoms, advance our health, and so on–even when we are disappointed by particular individuals.

The exact steps vary from institution to institution, but all must be supported by an underlying commitment to honesty and reliability. Banks, for example, should implement policies to prevent the kind of deceptive lending practices that contributed to the current mortgage meltdown. Government should open records, investigate abuses of power, and hew to constitutional principles. Protecting minority rights at the voting booth and in the workplace would encourage cooperation among individuals who might otherwise be wary of one another.

Individual citizens can help rebuild trust by joining community groups, connecting with neighbors, and talking to others about important issues in their lives. If the leaders of national and local voluntary associations work to build better connections across different groups, they will help to rebuild community and a sense of trust. All of this will take commitment and energy, which is why our natural yearnings and instincts may offer our best hope.

Consider the tagline for the most recent X-Files movie, where the TV show’s franchise lives on.

Instead of “Trust no one,” it is “I want to believe.”

It’s not an insignificant shift in semantics. And it might just catch on.

Pamela Paxton is an associate professor at Ohio State University. Jeremy Adam Smith is the author of The Daddy Shift (Beacon, 2009) and senior editor of Greater Good, an online magazine about “the science of a meaningful life.” This article is excerpted from the Fall 2008 issue.

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