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…..