Trust In Short Supply In America

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

 “Trust is an essential elixir for public life and neighborly relations, and when Americans think about trust these days, they worry.” That was key finding in a report written by Lee Rainie, Scott Keeter And Andrew Perrin for the Pew Research Center titled: Trust and Distrust in America.

Trust in our government is a near historic low, Pew’s study says. But that is no surprise when 76 percent of Americans think a low level of trust in the federal government is justified.

We are also less trusting of one another with Americans saying that people just aren’t as reliable as they once were. Pew’s study also found that those who don’t trust other people have less trust in our public institutions.

We’ve lost faith in our federal government’s ability to solve our problems, we’ve lost faith in our elected leaders willingness to make the tough choices that lead to solving our greatest challenges, and we don’t think our fellow citizens are engaged or educated enough to make intelligent decisions when they go to the voting booth. According to Pew’s study, we think these trends are getting worse rather than better.

Pew’s study found that, “Many ascribe shrinking trust to a political culture they believe is broken and spawns suspicion, even cynicism, about the ability of others to distinguish fact from fiction.”

We have lost our common understanding of the challenges we face as our media, primarily television and social media, have become toxically partisan. For those who watch Fox News, and its stable of inflammatory commentators, distrust of fellow citizens,  those who are different in how they worship and in the color of their skin, our government and our press is heightened.

We also don’t think our fellow citizens are very open-minded. Half of Americans have little or no confidence that others will would reconsider their point of view on an issue when presented with new evidence. Nearly 60 percent have no confidence that adults can have a civil conversation about politics with people who have opposing views.
In today’s internet world where conspiracy theirs, political propaganda, foreign meddling and the malicious spreading of disinformation, it is no surprise that  a “significant” number of us have trouble sorting truth from falsehood.

“Americans say they think there are direct connections between rising distrust and other trends they perceived as major problems, such as partisan paralysis in government, the outsize influence of lobbyists and moneyed interests, confusion arising from made-up news and information, declining ethics in government, the intractability of immigration and climate debates, rising health care costs and a widening gap between the rich and the poor,” the study says.

As worry grows over the lack of trust pervading our society, it also isn’t a surprise that nearly 70 percent of Americans think it is “very important” to restore public faith fellow citizens and our government.

But how? Americans are becoming more divided, more polarized, and angrier in their points of view. We have a president whose popularity is immersed and founded on sowing division.

We have fewer ways to build trust with one another as we fail to build bonds through belonging to social organizations, sports teams, and through community participation.

“We’ve stopped doing committee work, stopped serving as officers, and stopped going to meetings…. In short, Americans have been dropping out in droves, not merely from political life, but from organized community life generally,” Robert D. Putnam writes in his book Bowling Alone. “Year after year, fewer and fewer of us (take) part in the everyday deliberations that constitute grassroots democracy.”

It is through the social connections we build with people in serving on committees and boards, in volunteering for community events, through participation on a bowling or volleyball teams, that we create bonds that build trust. It is through our connections with people we build toward establish a common purpose, common goals, and through which we learn to work side-by-side with someone who is different from us. When share meals, entertainment, successes and failures, with people we build bonds.

“We come from all the divisions, ranks and classes of society…to teach and to be taught in our turn. While we mingle together in these pursuits, we shall learn to know each other more intimately; we shall remove many of the prejudices which ignorance or partial acquaintance with each other has fostered. We may return to our homes and firesides with kindlier feelings toward one another, because we have learned to know one another better.” These words by Thomas Green at a Lyceum program in New Bedford, Mass in 1829 are as true today as they were 190 years ago. However, it is not the message we are hearing today.

Too often these days we are isolated and in that isolation we lose faith and trust in our fellow citizens. We see too much of our role in the community, state and nation as one of an individual looking for what we can get rather than a citizen looking to serve.

When Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, three of the giants among the nation’s founding fathers, were tasked with coming up with a seal and motto for the newly-formed United States, their eventual compromise led to the motto “E Pluribus Unum” -  Out of Many, One.

Surprisingly, despite the pessimistic view of America’s falling in trust in our government, our press, and one another, there is hope that we are better than our doubts. “Fully 84% believe the level of confidence Americans have in the federal government can be improved, and 86% think improvement is possible when it comes to the confidence Americans have in each other,” the Pew study says. To realize that renewed trust will not be easy in today’s political and social climate.

Rural life may hold a key to renewed trust and faith in government, and one another. Small towns are places where the social capital needed to build the bonds that allow us to trust in one another and get things done can be nurtured.

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