Our greatest accomplishments sprang from an era of trust and cooperation. Without trust, all our institutions crumble.
Here’s a stat that’s hard to believe: in 1958, 77% of Americans trusted the government. What’s more, that number was consistent among people of all stripes, with little variation across party, ideology or age.
Looking back from our bitterly divided and harshly polarized era, that level of trust and good faith seems almost mythical. During the Trump years, it dipped as low as 17%.
This is a disaster in the making, because civilization rests on a foundation of trust. Everything that makes us a society depends on trust: the water we drink, the bridges we drive on, the food we buy, the banks we store valuables in, the media that informs us, the laws we expect to be enforced impartially. A nation where trust is slipping away is like a person who’s suffered a fatal internal injury. They may stagger along for a while, but eventually the wound will take its toll.
The U.S. is poisoned by distrust
The U.S. is in that position, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve witnessed the catastrophic consequences. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from a disease that has a vaccine, all because they believe Facebook memes over doctors and health officials. They’re convinced that the shots are a sinister plot to deprive them of their liberty, or a globalist scheme for population control, or the entry point of the New World Order. Their distrust is so entrenched that they won’t change their minds even after witnessing friends and family suffer and die miserable deaths. What’s worse, it’s spreading to become a suspicion of all vaccines.
It’s not just COVID where distrust is poisoning us. Mass shootings are a steady drumbeat because angry, unstable people feel compelled to arm themselves to the teeth. Bigotry and xenophobia are resurgent because we fear outsiders. Inequality is soaring because of the breakdown of collective solidarity. Wild conspiracy theories like QAnon are proliferating, devouring one of our major parties from the inside out.
Lack of trust is the universal acid: the alchemical substance that can’t be contained, that corrodes everything it comes in contact with. It makes consensus impossible, resulting in paralysis and stagnation. Science denialism makes us helpless before looming threats like COVID or climate change. We can’t even agree on basic reality when everyone lives in a bubble of self-selected sources telling them what they want to hear, and dismissing anything to the contrary as fake news, false flags, crisis actors. Even flat-earthism is making a comeback!
From the New Deal to winning two world wars to the moon landing to wiping out polio and smallpox, our greatest achievements came from trust and cooperation: from millions of people pulling together in support of a common goal. Conversely, when we exhaust our energy on zero-sum fights against each other, we stay stuck where we are, or worse, slide backwards.
How did we create so much trust in the first place, and how did we lose it? Both questions have the same answer.
How we built up trust, and how we tore it down
Government regulation is a crucial means of creating trust, and during the progressive era, the U.S. employed it to the fullest. Think of the crackdown on the meatpacking industry after the horrors revealed in The Jungle, or the FDA sweeping away patent-medicine quacks who sold useless tonics or dangerous drugs as cure-alls.
Later in the 20th century, we added more laws to regulate on-the-job hazards, oversee polluting industries and protect the air and water. All these laws established a web of trust and accountability, building the modern regulatory state we now take for granted. They gave people reasonable confidence that we wouldn’t be sickened or poisoned, without having to take a stranger’s word for it.
But in the 1980s, when the modern conservative movement took shape, they made a campaign against government their rallying cry. They denounced government as an oppressive force (“I’m from the government and I’m here to help” was a “terrifying” sentence, according to Ronald Reagan)—rather than a collective agreement we make to benefit everyone. They insisted that unleashing the free market, via tax cuts, union-busting and deregulation, would make everyone richer without any downsides. Instead, it led predictably to soaring inequality and nosediving trust.
Trust and tribalism
Of course, the big asterisk is that in the era when trust was greatest, the government only served the interests of one kind of people. It was a time of Jim Crow laws and redlining, when women couldn’t open a bank account without their husband’s permission and Japanese internment camps were a recent memory.
It’s not coincidental that trust has declined in lockstep with assertions of political power by women, people of color, the LGBTQ movement, atheists, and other minorities. For better or for worse, tribalism and homogeneity is a shortcut to building trust.
It seems that the more white Christian men have to share power, the angrier they become, and the more receptive they become to anti-government ideology. The right’s campaign to tear down the state has a quality of self-destructive spite, as in, “I’d sooner burn the country to the ground than see those people in charge of it!”
This is a diagnosis, but it isn’t a cure. The sinister genius of the anti-government campaign is that trust is easy to destroy, difficult to rebuild. When you’re inclined to distrust, the natural assumption is that people trying to help you must have ulterior motives. And, as we’re seeing with the COVID vaccine, this mindset is so ingrained that many conservatives are literally willing to die for it. You can’t put that universal acid back in the bottle.
The trust and good will we once enjoyed won’t come back, at least not as it was. It will have to be reconstructed in a different way, but there are no simple answers for how to do this. Like an addict who refuses help until they hit rock bottom, it may be that, in some parts of the U.S., things will have to get worse before they can get better.
In the meantime, the best thing that we can do is continue to model the benefits of trust, cooperation and good governance. We can argue, and more importantly show by example, that life is better when people work together and help each other. We won’t convince everyone, but each person we can win over is a small victory, and it’s of many small victories that bigger victories are built.