Reverse the Rot

A plea for help on a fundamental societal issue

I see a big problem facing American society — one that I think every American should be concerned about, irrespective of one’s politics. This problem is analogous to decay: It’s been decades in the making, gradually festering. If allowed to continue unabated, this problem threatens to destroy the American experiment. Our problem is a lack of trust.

No matter who you are, I bet you can point to a major entity in our society you don’t trust. People of all political backgrounds express distrust of the government in some regard. You will also find plenty of complaints about big business. And don’t forget the press, either! Sometimes it feels like you can hardly trust anyone.

The crazy thing is, if you think about it, all those groups are composed of people like us. In other words, we do not trust our fellow Americans. What happened? Has it always been like this?

The Pew Research Center aggregated surveys about trust in American society over the past few decades. The trends are clear and concerning: Trust is in a rotten condition. If you have the time, take a look at the full report — it has lots of interesting insights. I would like to draw your attention to two key findings.


First, the chart to the left:

Fewer than three-in-ten Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted since July 2007 — the longest period of low trust in government in more than 50 years. In 1958, when the American National Election Study first asked this question, 73% said they could trust the government just about always or most of the time.

Second, although there isn’t much in the way of trends here, as of the latter half of 2015, numerous non-governmental institutions were viewed more favorably than the federal government and Congress. Note that news media, the entertainment industry, and large corporations, on average, scored unfavorably, too.

Now that we’ve established the troubling trends in trust, you might be thinking, “So what? People shouldn’t trust X, Y, or Z.” Maybe there’s a good reason why the distrust exists in the first place, but it still has significant societal costs. I would bet economists have studied this in great detail and even quantified the cost, but let’s just talk in the abstract.

Lack of trust means we have to spend more precious resources watching our backs, making sure people don’t cheat. This overhead translates into higher prices for goods and services, since at a bare minimum, producers have to cover their costs if they want to stay in business in the long run (or in the case of government, it means fewer services can be delivered with a given budget).

If we trusted each other more, the extra surveillance wouldn’t be necessary. In turn, goods and services could either be rendered for lower prices, or the cost savings could be put towards developing new and better things. Sounds like a good deal, huh? Yet with a lack of trust, the potential is severely limited.

One specific manifestation of distrust I’ve seen gaining traction is the “Calexit” movement. Calexit — a portmanteau of “California” and “Exit” (it’s a cousin of “Brexit” and “Grexit”) — aims to have California secede from the United States.

Some folks in California are so convinced the federal government can’t be trusted to do the right thing that they want to secede. Calexit channeled those frustrations and has campaigned to put a measure on the state ballot in 2018 that would allow citizens to voice their support for secession.

I admit, I don’t know a whole lot about history, but this whole scenario sounds vaguely familiar. The analogy isn’t perfect, but we’ve been here before, and the parties asserting the right to secede — namely, the Confederate states — were thoroughly rebuffed by the Supreme Court in the case Texas v. White: Unilateral secession from the Union is unconstitutional.

While bilateral secession would apparently be legal via constitutional amendment, I still wouldn’t count on that happening. Consider all the federal property currently sitting within California’s borders, such as labs and military bases, or the sheer number of (quite wealthy) taxpayers who make annual payments to the IRS. The rest of the country stands to lose a lot from California’s secession.

Maybe you’re at the point where you’re so pissed off you say, “to hell with the rules.” Even if we set aside questions of legality, the possibility of civil war should give you good reason to hesitate. If enough Californians are so intent on leaving, and the rest of the country doesn’t want to let that happen, war seems like a reasonable possibility.

I think history has some important lessons. Here are some sobering facts: The American Civil War cost more American lives than all other wars the US has been involved in, combined. While the exact number of deaths is still subject to debate, it is estimated anywhere between a lower limit of 620K and upper limit of 850K. If that magnitude of loss were scaled to the country’s population today, it would constitute at least 6 million deaths.

Are people genuinely convinced our way of life is so threatened that the risk of provoking civil war — and the carnage likely to ensue — is a more palatable course of action? Call me a crazy collaborator if you will, but I still don’t think we’re anywhere close to the point where the expected value of that bet is positive.

If we want to steer ourselves away from the road likely to lead to civil war, what should we do? I only have one concrete idea, and you probably won’t like it, so brace yourself. Are you ready?

I think we all need to make compromises in the political realm. Left, right, center, and everywhere in between — you have to be willing to give something up.

Exactly what those compromises are is up for discussion, and of course, all compromises need not be valued equally. There are also certain things I would not compromise on, but the general point still stands: If we want to keep the country together, we have to be willing to give up something we would rather have.

The way I see it, offering a compromise is a great way to show you have good intentions. It says, “I’m willing to set aside getting something I really want because I value the stability of our society more than I value getting my way all the time.” I think this can (re)build trust by showing we are willing to make a sacrifice for the benefit of others.

If you’re worried about others not playing along, we can employ shame as our motivating force. It’s surprisingly effective at encouraging cooperation. When we see others not returning the favor with their own compromises, we should be eager to call them out on it. We humans hate being ostracized — especially when there is an established norm — and will quickly take action to be seen as a team player.

Aside of compromise, I also wanted to bring up a nascent idea I had. It’s not very well fleshed out yet, so I apologize for the lack of detail, but with some refinement, there might be something to it.

I recently read The Righteous Mind, which claims (among many other things) religion arose as a force to solve the free rider problem and encourage people to trust each other. In theory, this makes sense: If everyone has a shared set of values, and punishment for transgressing is certain — even if it may only come from the divine — then of course people will be inclined to play by the rules.

However, in practice, I wonder how this can work in a society like ours that enshrines freedom of religion. Different religions obviously have different values — and for that matter, some people don’t even associate with any religion. How can we hope to trust each other if we have fundamentally different values?

I’m thinking some kind of civic or secular religion could bind us together and foster trust. In fact, this country used to have a prevalent one. You might have heard of it: It’s called The American Dream.

Sadly, many have proclaimed The American Dream is long-dead. I like to think we can revitalize this “religion,” but I’m not sure what it would look like today. Would people still go for the same story? If not, then perhaps it’s time to come up with a new narrative.

There must be other ways to rebuild trust, but I’m only one person, and I’m fresh out of ideas. I know there are people out there who are much smarter and wiser than I am; people who have even better ideas for keeping things from going from “bad” to “worse.” We need to hear from you.

For your sake, for the sake of our friends and families, for the sake of our neighbors, for the sake of our fellow Americans, and for the sake of setting an example for the rest of the world to follow, we need to learn to trust each other again. So I plead with you: Please help me reverse the rot of trust.