The Year of Lost Trust

Tomorrow, we will welcome a new year. It will come with significant challenges, among them, pervasive suspicion of our social and governing institutions.

Ask the person on the street, who do you trust? and increasingly, at least in America, the answer is “no one” or “very few.”

We can debate the reasons for our sour national mood and pervasive distrust of our institutions and fellow-citizens, but the cynicism and skepticism are not debatable.

One reason: the Internet has exponentially expanded our ability to live in a “filter bubble”—a reality of our own creation, where (in defiance of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous dictum) we can indeed choose our own “facts.”

Convinced that Obama is the anti-Christ? Watch Fox News, visit right-wing websites and listen to talk radio for confirmation. Positive that bankers and evil corporations are intentionally crushing the “little guy”? Subscribe to lefty blogs, read conspiracy websites and respond to hysterical emails.

Political psychologists call this behavior “confirmation bias.” We used to call it “cherry picking”—the intellectually dishonest process of picking through information sources from the bible to the U.S. budget looking for evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

When the realities we have constructed encounter an inconsistent “real world,” the resulting cognitive dissonance makes us uncomfortable, angry and wary.

And thanks to a media environment that no longer includes news sources with widespread credibility, non-ideological Americans who just want to know what is happening in their cities and country no longer know what or whom to believe.

As we are seeing, one of the most dangerous consequences of this widespread distrust is a growing acceptance of demagoguery.

When citizens no longer share a reality, they are susceptible to messages confirming their worst fears and most pernicious biases—and human nature being what it is, there is no scarcity of opportunists, megalomaniacs and unhinged bigots prepared to sell us their particular snake-oil.

(The willingness of high-profile political figures to make untrue, outrageous and frequently ridiculous allegations is undoubtedly one reason so many people think satirical articles posted to social media are real. Gee—it sounded like something Sarah Palin would have said…)

This retreat into an “us versus them” worldview isn’t confined to traditional bigotries based upon race, religion and sexual orientation. It is glaringly evident in our political life. In our increasingly dysfunctional Congress the villain is partisan distrust; these days, ideas are rarely considered based upon their merits, but accepted or rejected based upon who proposed them, and both parties are guilty.

A few years ago, I wrote a book titled “Distrust, American Style” in which I explored the importance of social trust to democratic self-government. One conclusion: We live in a world where globalization and technology have combined to create a complex environment in which no one person has the knowledge needed to independently evaluate foreign, regulatory or environmental policies. We have no choice but to rely on experts—and that means figuring out which experts–and which information and media outlets– we can trust.

There are many reasons for our current “trust deficit,” but as the saying goes, fish rot from the head.

When citizens don’t trust their social institutions, they become suspicious of each other. When government, especially, no longer works—when authority figures from Congress-people to Governors to Mayors to police officers are seen abusing their powers and ignoring the common good—the resulting distrust infects every aspect of our communal lives.

Add in economic inequality and rapid social change, and you have a dangerously destabilized polity—a recipe for extremism, division and constant discord—and a nearly irresistible invitation to blame it all on “those people.”

Let’s hope that 2016 is the year we begin to inch back from the precipice.

Happy New Year…..

 

 

21 thoughts on “The Year of Lost Trust

  1. Starting in the 80’s the “R” party kept chanting that OUR Government was not the solution, that is was the problem. Yet they kept wanting to run our government. Very odd. Add to that the Hate Radio people and Fox Noise — repeat for decades and here we are.

  2. Best of the New Year to you, too. Looking forward to more words of thoughtful origin on your blog in 2016.

  3. patmcc,

    “Add to that the Hate Radio people and Fox Noise-repeat for decades and here we are.”

    Yes, we are here and thankfully we have SheilaKennedy.net.

    Predictions for 2016: The TEA PARTY will be defeated. And SANTA CLAUS TRUMP will disappear politically.

    Happy New Year to All!

  4. Happy New Year. I’ll be celebrating 6 hrs ahead of you so have a good one, if you can stay awake long enough. Cheers!

  5. I think a big part of our problem with government is that we expect everything to be fixed immediately. That would be like turning an aicraft carrier on a dime. Can’t be done. We have 320 milion people in the US and it takes a lot of people and a big apparatus to provide even a basic level of governance. We need to give the people in our agencies a mandate for long range planning, then give them the tools to carry out those plans.

  6. I think a big part of our problem with government is that we expect everything to be fixed immediately. That would be like turning an aicraft carrier on a dime. Can’t be done. We have 320 milion people in the US and it takes a lot of people and a big apparatus to provide even a basic level of governance. We need to give the people in our agencies a mandate for long range planning, then give them the tools to carry out those plans.

  7. The obvious problem is that Government at all levels is for sale and the average guy no longer gets much consideration. Focus on ISIS so we won’t see how the power structure is looting us. focus on Muslims so we won’t see the rape of the environment. It is impossible to trust when trust is not warranted.

  8. Thank you for another thought provoking post, Ms. Kennedy, and the Happiest of New Years to you and your family.
    Just a thought, but, of course, wordy! 😉
    Radio came in in the 1920s, and by the time we had gotten to the late 1930s in the wake of tremendous social and economic upheavals, it was being used to spread dangerous propaganda involving economic, social, and religious subjects. (Has anybody heard of Fr. Coughlin? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Coughlin ?)
    Hitler perfected its use in hate.
    Now, we’ve seen the internet open whole new ways of communication, and what do we have? More stuff just like the hate Fr. Coughlin spewed. Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, and all those worse them them. I guess we do have reason to be thankful that instead of a Hitler, we’ve been blessed with an Obama to be in charge while we’re learning to use it.
    Question — maybe learning HOW to use new technologies is something we ought to pay more attention to?

  9. My New Year’s Resolution is to recruit more readers of Sheila Kennedy’s blog. If you agree that more folks need to hear more from Sheila Kennedy, I hope you’ll do the same.

  10. We twa hae run about the the braes,
    And pu’d the gowans fine;
    But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot
    Sin auld lang syne.

    ♫♫♫

  11. This blog hits the nail on the head. But the problem this nation faces is an inability to get the economy going without destroying our children’s future. When Democrat Presidents vote for NAFTA and a transPacific partnership, we see people become disenfranchised and upset in the Democrat party and when Republicans do anything to take out unions with the right to work laws we see hard working Union Republicans calling their elected officials to stop. Some of these people become political floaters or new independents.
    On the other the other hand there are those who are loyalists, for when the pendulum swings it swings hard and some of those who were normal middle of the road grab on and are moved to the left or the right as they try to defend candidates/parties positions.
    The middle income hard working people are blind sided. they are too busy to pick up the phone and call their representative or believe in their party so much they become unprincipled voters.
    I hope that people will look at there neighbors at the beginning of this year and talk their way through problems and find better solutions without letting those at the top take away their freedoms. Grass roots solutions means problems get solved by people and not lobby groups, media outlets, or political leaders who mean well by creating changes to public policy that no one can truly afford.

  12. Happy New Year to all. May we continue to live in a country where the quest for truth is not lost. Thank you, Sheila, for helping me stay positive in an ever darkening political, environmental and economic world.

  13. I have to object when I hear statements that try to balance liberal and conservative viewpoints like we all mistrust, the difference merely whom.

    To me the cause of our current culture is simply and completely right wing propaganda through pervasive media and brand marketing science. Business interest paying to create a new brand – conservative anti government and the GOP desperate from years of truly inept government just taking advantage of the new reality and the campaign funding available from those who prefer aristocracy to democracy.

    Liberals haven’t changed message or strategy or tactics much. We assume that logic and education and information and democracy are still what run politics.

    The question is are we correct?

    We’ll know soon enough.

  14. John Smith, as an example of the new conservative brand, insists the Ronnie was privileged to speak for all administrations instead of just his own when he insisted that government is the problem not the solution. Of course the evidence is almost completely contrary to his opinion outside of his administration.

    The truth, supported by the evidence, is that human civilization has progressed in number and ability so that liberal government solutions are now required on a global level as well as national and state and local levels. And one alternative to that, business, has demonstrated their ability to cause problems at levels more comprehensive than national. The other alternative, religion, has always been way too fractured at levels beyond family.

    But at the same time business desperate to make money regardless of the cost to others keeps funding the conservative anti government brand and the campaigns that would empower the brand politically.

    So there is only one viable path forward and the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.

    Humanity has to make democracy pervasive. All of the evidence supports that assertion. It is the one approach that maximizes freedom and freedom works for all of mankind.

    We simply cannot choose slavery.

  15. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
    THE SECOND COMING

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
    =================================================
    This poem certainly describes the Republicon Party to a “T”. Unfortunately we saddled with “Blue Dog Democrats” like John Gregg and the rest Corporate Democrats like $hillary also.

  16. Happy New Year everybody. 2016 could be a milestone year in saving the earth from business and America from slavery. Imagine – a whole world of people freed from want and able to make their unique contribution to all.

  17. Poem of the Decade

    W.B. Yeats – The Second Coming – 1920

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

    Thank you for posting this poem. I have taken the liberty of including the whole thing because I like the desert references in the second part. This poem has seemed to me to be THE cry of our times and I keep a copy handy to refer to from time to time.

    It is a persistent fascination of mine that poets (or songwriters-Bob Dylan, e.g.) can apparently casually encapsulate central ideas of their (and future) times as they go about their regular wordsmithing business. Somehow, TRYING to be the voice of an era cheapens and diminishes the product – perhaps one explanation for the depthless poverty of political discourse these days.

    Best wishes to all!

  18. Constitutionalists are clear that the federal government, not state government is a real problem. Government that over reaches its intentions as seen in the constitution is what conservatives in the Republican Party are concerned about. They are rightly fighting the Bushes of Republican Party and the big government pro business Clinton types in the Demcrat Party. They outright dismiss Liberals that are now more socialist in public policy as know it alls that state the constitution is a problem for the progressive movement.
    My hope for the new year is that we regain some of the freedoms lost and continue to regulate the governments abuse of power at the voting booth. History shows that the “contract with America” during Clintons administration did what our country needed by balancing the budget and maintaining government.
    Administrations should not disobey laws and abuse their power and Congress should thru the power of the purse use its governing authority if need shut down government which has been done approximately fifteen times in two decades to achieve solutions to an empass. Our children are inheriting overwhelming yearly deficits that contribute to a booming national debt. George Washington gave warnings that our nation would begin to fail when it would realize it could borrow against itself. Where is all the money that depositors put into Social Security funds.

    Facts of abuse lead to cynicism and somehow we should not question this type of authority abuse.

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