Social trust is defined as trusting strangers we encounter in our day-to-day lives to follow certain social norms or fundamental moral expectations. With experience, we come to believe that others will perform their appointed tasks with integrity and will not steal from us, not lie to us and not defraud us. Social trust is the glue that permits 333 million Americans to live together in a complex, diverse community. Unfortunately, in today’s society, many believe that social distrust of long-established institutions and of our fellow citizens is the greatest threat to democracy in our nation.
Factors such as political corruption, racial/ethnic differences and economic inequality have always threatened social trust. What is new is the degree to which political polarization has also become a threat to social distrust, making it impossible for a healthy democracy to function.
Every day we observe out of control political polarization in action on cable news. On July 27, 2021, MSNBC and CNN were highlighting the emotional testimony of the Capitol Police at the first congressional hearing convened to determine the facts behind the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. The witnesses described deadly attacks against them precipitated by the words and actions of then-president Donald Trump.
At the same time, Fox News and Newsmax were accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of causing the Capitol riot. They also featured segments attacking the Justice Department for ignoring the criminal rights of the Capitol rioters, who were labeled political prisoners by the commentators.
These two political views could not have been further apart in addressing an important national issue. Neither political tribe trusts the other to present the facts accurately or to understand the other’s position. What is new and frightening is that we not only distrust politicians from the other party, we distrust those who voted for the other party.
As evidence that political polarization has a growing negative impact on social trust, consider three necessary careers in America that have been transformed from noncontroversial employment into partisan lightning rods. Two years ago working as a public health administrator, an election official or a middle school history teacher guaranteed that one could perform a mundane public function while remaining out of the public eye. Since the pandemic, all three positions have been vilified through political polarization, thereby increasing our social distrust.
Public health was the first occupation to be politicized. In the early months of the pandemic, Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was removed from his federal position when he rejected pressure by Department of Health and Human Services officials to make hydroxychloroquine, touted by President Trump as a possible COVID-19 treatment, “widely available.” More recently, a Missouri county health director left her job because of threats she received over measures put in place to curb the coronavirus pandemic, including a mask mandate. There are many other examples of trust in conscientious public health employees being challenged for partisan political motives.
Next to come under the public spotlight were state and local election officials. This occurred after the former president, while still in office, attacked these government employees for refusing to disobey court orders and decertify election results. Public confidence in our elections often comes down to trust in nonpartisan election administrators. Since the 2020 election over 145 bills proposed by Republican state legislatures would reassign various powers of election officials to highly partisan legislatures. These “legislative seizures” could threaten social trust by allowing elected lawmakers to overturn the will of voters and determine their own preferred winners of elections.
Lastly, public school history teachers recently became the political target of political polarization. Many educators want to present a balanced view of the history of American slavery, reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and slavery’s continuing impact on racism. Many parents who follow Republican talking points find this view of American history offensive. They are fighting to prevent this curriculum from being taught in the public schools, thereby perpetuating distrust in America’s story.
What is to be done to end this cold civil war we are waging against one another that has disintegrated social trust? Primarily, we must confront the emotional urge to interpret all actions by the other side, political and nonpolitical, as misguided. Thankfully, most social interactions are apolitical. We must not let our communities devolve into separate enclaves where citizens only live, work, shop and educate their children with members of their own political affiliation.
The one bright spot in promoting social trust has been the economy. Despite unprecedented high levels of political polarization, trust in capitalism and the American financial system has never been higher. After the recession, the progressive economist Joseph Stiglitz was quoted as saying: “It is trust more than money that makes the world go round.”
The supply of money has more than doubled since the recession and yet gold hording and other signs of economic mistrust are minimal. Economic expansion is fueled by trust in everything from online restaurant reviews to dating apps, car sharing and home sharing.
At its core, social distrust is sustained by the inability of many to accept a nonwhite majority in a country that once enslaved black people. We can only hope that this multigenerational prejudice can be offset by the move toward an open, sharing economy that views diversity as an asset.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.