The recent talk about “trust” with regard to the transportation sales tax referendum reminds me of one of my earliest columns for The State‘s editorial page. This ran on Feb. 7, 1995. I had only been on the editorial board a year at the time. Back then, board members rarely wrote columns; I was the only one to do so on a regular basis — I just couldn’t hold back. (Fellow Associate Editor Kent Krell called me “the Energizer Bunny” behind my back.) When I became editorial page editor two years later, I started requiring associate editors to write at least a column a week.
Anyway, while the headline was amazingly boring, I still like the column, and wouldn’t change a word of it:
Shortage of trust underlies most current problems
British Prime Minister John Major says the Irish peace process is threatened by a lack of trust among the Protestants of Ulster.
Well, we can’t help him with that one. American citizens have been pretty good about supplying weapons to Irish killers over the years, but we can’t spare any trust just now. We’re fresh out.
In fact, I am increasingly convinced that virtually every social problem we have in America arises from a shortage of that commodity.
The more I think about this, the more it seems like a universal principle: When mutual trust is high, society runs smoothly; when trust is low, it doesn’t. That sounds simple, but when it first occurred to me, I was startled to realize how much it explained. It seemed the sociopolitical equivalent of the unified field theory that physicists seek.
Look around. Depending on who we are, we don’t trust : the rich, the poor, the congressman, the congresswoman, the teacher, the student, older people, younger people, TV, newspapers, the courts, the police, the boss, the employees, liberals, conservatives, the guy next door, the guy across town, the guy walking down the sidewalk toward us, feminists, preachers, lawyers, doctors, businesses or customers.
A lack of basic trust of each other explains why:
- We have so many laws, and so many lawyers. We trust nothing to common sense.
- Thirty years after the Civil Rights Act, black and white Americans still seem to be at odds on so many fronts. So we have affirmative action and racially gerrymandered legislative districts.
- Feminists continue to believe that a “glass ceiling” keeps women down.
- Political discourse has gotten ugly. We no longer trust people who disagree with us to speak in good faith.
- We want term limits, spending caps and other ways of putting government on autopilot. (We don’t trust either elected representatives or our fellow voters.)
- We buy so many guns and build so many prisons.
- We call the cops rather than tell those kids on the corner to “cut that out!”
It’s why we form taxpayer advocacy groups. We don’t trust government with our money.
Government! Why, we don’t trust government to do anything right, and we almost never think of the government as us anymore, as though the great American experiment in self-government were over. Now, government seems to many of us like this menacing thing out there, an intruder to be cast out of our lives. Yet what is “government” but the means by which we come together to decide, as a people, how we will live with one another?
Basically, we’ve lost faith in most of the institutions, large and small, through which our public life once found meaning.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time, just a generation or two ago, when people sort of took it for granted that the rest of the world wasn’t out to get them. Back during the Depression, people were poor, but they didn’t resent it too much because they looked around and saw other people were poor, too. Then we beat Hitler and imperial Japan, and our greatest weapon was our ability to pull together in trusting teamwork. The government asked us not only to pay our taxes but place further trust in it by buying war bonds, and we did. The government told us that the boys at the front needed rubber and steel more than we did, and we went without and conducted drives.
After the war, we found even more reasons to trust government and the larger society. Government policies, paired with an exponentially expanding economy, helped create the affluent middle class of the ’50s and ’60s through enactment of bold policies in the late ’40s, such as the GI bill and subsidized low-interest mortgages.
Citizens who had been left out of what prosperity had existed before in America were given a fair shot at the American dream for the first time — partly because of court and congressional action, but mostly because the majority of Americans were convinced that it was wrong to treat people differently because of skin color.
So what happened? A lot. We fought a war that, instead of pulling us together, pulled us apart. Leveling the playing field between black and white didn’t level social and economic inequities, and we’re still fighting over why. A President was brought low, and people started looking at their leaders in a different way. Women sought equity with men at the same time that a shifting economy forced them into the workplace whether they wanted to be there or not. And yes, the press has had a lot to do with the decline of trust and sense of community in our society. For too long, we saw our job as being largely to tell you what was wrong with government and society so you, the voter, could fix it. We’ve focused on failures and conflict, and then we sit back and wonder why everybody seems to think society’s gone rotten. Our friends in the electronic media have done their bit, too, of course. You’d think from watching TV news that there’s nothing going on outside your door but random murders, rapes, robberies and lousy weather. So why go out and get involved?
And yet that is precisely what we must do if we’re going to fix this problem. We’ve got to unlock the door, go outside and encounter each other. We’ve got to take chances.
We have to engage — pay attention, think, run for office, circulate petitions, vote.
But first we have to believe that we can make a difference, that we can form communities rooted in good faith, that we can govern ourselves with civility. It may seem like a long shot, but it can be done. Trust me.