“Americans don’t trust one another, and they don’t trust the government,” Jedidiah Britton-Purdy, an author and a professor at Duke Law School, writes in The Atlantic magazine. “This mistrust is so pervasive that it can feel natural, but it isn’t. Profound distrust has risen within my lifetime; it is intensifying, and it threatens to make democracy impossible.”
Currently, only 1% of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always.” Only 15% say it will do the right thing “most of the time,” according to Pew Research. “This is among the lowest trust measures in nearly seven decades of polling,” it says.
Back in 1958, when the National Election Study of Americans’ level of trust in their government started, 75% of us generally had a high degree of trust in government. Were we just naïve back then, or has something fundamentally changed in our society?
Unfortunately, we’ve been given plenty of reasons to distrust elected officials. Too many have used positions of power for self-enrichment. Too many seem more interested in gaining power than serving, and too many covet those positions of power and privilege over all else.
Politics has evolved into a bitter battle of vilification. Don’t just oppose the other candidate or party, but make them out to be an immediate threat to your freedom, religion, security, health, safety, right to carry a gun and financial future. Create enemies they can identify as the source of these threats and ramp up the danger to a fever pitch.
Fear more than hope drives people to the polls, as does a cult of personality more than decency or upholding the sanctity of our democratic ideals. “Destabilizing levels of mistrust feel natural, even morally required, because the world has fractured,” Britton-Purdy writes. And mistrust justifies much of the dysfunction we suffer today.
It isn’t only that trust has been severely eroded; it has been replaced. Too many now trust sources that tell them outright mislead them.
We used to write that living in a rural community, where we were constantly interacting near those of differing points of view, helped us be more civil and tolerant. We bowled and attended school concerts and basketball games together. We met people from all walks of life at the local tavern or community events. They may not have been close friends, but we were friendly and accepting of our differences. We saw the good in each other.
How do we reach a compromise when it is defined today as giving in to the other side? It is a win at all costs. We see the consequences – inaction on everything necessary to the future of our nation and world. Immigration, fighting disease, curbing the atrocities of international dictators, meeting housing and daycare needs, and a host of other pressing needs are stuck in partisan gamesmanship.
Solutions are found in the 90% of what the two sides agree on, but action is forever stalled in the 10% that bitterly divide them and their supporters – supporters who vote in primaries.
Some people are now radicalized to the point of believing violence is justified against members of the other party. It is justified against the people who oversee elections if your side loses. Everyone who allows these beliefs to take root is guilty by association with the violence that follows, whether they helped stoke the animosity or sat silent as it was spoken.
Today, Britton-Purdy writes, “Election denialism, political violence, and a willingness to resort to anti-constitutional measures to take or hold power are all acute threats to democracy… But there are also chronic threats to democracy. They are not limited to one party, let alone one leader. They affect us all, making the acute threats more dangerous and harder to overcome.”
Voting today is about survival and ensuring the other party is obliterated. Threats to punish and imprison members of the opposing party have been voiced and supported by radicalized constituents for the first time in modern American history. Our lack of trust and empathy for our fellow citizens is creating a constitutional crisis, Britton-Purdy says.
“If the other side is morally unacceptable and dangerous, supporting extreme efforts to keep it out of power becomes more plausible,” he writes. “The collapse of trust encourages, even if it does not ensure, a collapse of democracy.”
“The goal is not some kind of harmonious community, but for citizens of an intensely diverse country to be able to coexist in a time when our problems need political solutions; not to love one another, but to get along enough to wrestle with climate change, immigration, public safety, childcare, budget deficits, war—together.”
For there to be hope that we can rebuild trust in our representative form of democratic government, he says that efforts that have been neglected for years will have to be renewed.
“One is civic virtue—serious and respectful engagement in the hard work of living with disagreement and difference. The other is a radical commitment to building a social world where trust comes more readily.”
How do we do this?
In the years when we were more trusting of each other, we had a common news source – limited cable television news that, for the most part, gave us the news in a straightforward way. We had our state, regional, and local newspapers. Radio stations contributed. Our common news sources have been fractured into partisan TV and radio shows and websites. Every news source that doesn’t reflect our passions is suspected of colluding with the other side’s evil. Our tolerance for those with different views has eroded even in our small towns.
Our local sources bound us with challenges, celebrations, births and deaths, and news that created a shared identity built on its direct impact on our lives. Community newspapers can be a moderating, civil voice in a time of extreme division – but they are disappearing from the American landscape when their influence is needed most.