The United States has become a nation in crisis because of our lack of trust in each other and in our institutions.
In the last 20 years or so, we have stopped believing in almost every institution that has contributed to building up the world’s most powerful nation. We’re too determined to hold onto our beliefs, argue every issue and cut loose former friends and even family members if they disagree with us.
Unless we can start trusting each other again, we’ll never return to how life should be in the U.S.
A recent CBS poll found that 24% of the U.S. population is strongly or somewhat in favor of dividing the U.S. into red and blue countries. What does it mean when one in four Americans think this drastic measure is the solution to our problems?
The Pew Research Center reported that in 1964, people gave the government a 77% approval rating; today, at 20%, it has its lowest-ever rating.
How did this happen? Aren’t we the ones who delivered 12 astronauts to walk on the surface of the moon? Didn’t we help the Allies defeat the Axis powers in World War II?
Our distrust started with the Vietnam War and Watergate. It continued with the oil embargo in the late 1970s; the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina; the Gulf War against Iraq, in which no weapons of mass destruction were found; the federal government rescuing the banks’ from their own financial mess; Congress’ failure to pass needed legislation because of its dysfunction; and the recent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Threats from other nations? Today we have to closely watch what crackpot American-made organizations such as QAnon, Oath Keepers and Antifa are doing within our borders. The Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C. put us all on notice about just how bad it can get when we choose to fight among ourselves.
Trust is the foundation of all our institutions. When it breaks down, people criticize leaders in institutions, clamor for changes and spread unease, which can lead to authoritarianism.
A recent Gallup Poll concluded that 11 of the 16 major U.S. institutions had near-universal mistrust in the past year. Those institutions, such as the government and Congress, media, the business world, science advocates and even school boards get hit with major criticism. None of the 16 posted an increase in trust from the public.
We’re in a period of drastic social and cultural change. We’ve moved away from the institutions — even churches — that formerly defined our lives. But we haven’t replaced them with anything, which often makes us feel utterly lost. People don’t know who to turn to anymore.
The courts, previously held in high esteem, are seen as too political. They have eroded the confidence we had that no one was above the law. Chief Justice John Roberts, speaking in Colorado recently said, “If the court doesn’t retain its legitimate function of interpreting the Constitution, I’m not sure who would take up that mantle.”
Now when we discuss judges, it’s more about which president appointed them rather than about the need to balance the three pillars of government: executive, judicial and legislative. In fact, Marquette University found that the U.S. Supreme Court’s approval rating after the June abortion ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson dropped to 38% from 60% one year prior.
The 2022 Edelman Trust Institute barometer, which has measured trust annually for the last 20 years, revealed that nearly one in two respondents view government and media as divisive forces in society; 48% didn’t trust the government; 46% didn’t believe the media; government and media are the least-trusted institutions; 76% believe that fake news is at an all-time high and that distrust is now society’s default emotion, with 60% saying their tendency is to distrust something until they see evidence that it is trustworthy.
Distrust in government and media has led to a spiral of polarization.
A CBS News poll in August said the next generation of leaders believes the U.S. will become less of a democracy and that 64% believe that political violence will increase.
Doctors once had a considerable amount of trust, but a Gallup Poll said only 38% of respondents now had a great deal of trust in the medical system. Much of that can be attributed to how the pandemic was handled and the fact that we lost more than 1 million Americans to COVID.
In the wake of all this, how do we restore trust in our institutions? Some suggestions:
In schools and civic functions, teach people about the nation’s accomplishments and shortcomings and its place in the world.
Teach more civics courses at all levels so people understand how the Constitution intended for the courts, the president and Congress to operate.
Restore trust in election results. All Americans must have unimpeded access to the ballot box. That’s why national voting standards are so important, along with laws preventing interference with valid election results.
We must stop the spread of disinformation and misinformation, whether about COVID-19 or elections. They undermine Americans’ safety and threaten our democracy.
Give recommendations to internet platforms about how to share accurate news, and support robust local media in balancing what people read and hear. But also, we need to strengthen the regulation of online services; 81% of voters believe tech companies have too much power and influence over politics and government.
Teach people that strong ethics are vital to everyone’s welfare. There’s a lot to be said about the Golden Rule.
We must counter violent extremism, whether it’s from the left or the right.
Keep fighting to end the practice of gerrymandering by state legislatures. Here’s a revealing statistic: 42 U.S. senators represent only one-tenth of the U.S. population, but they have enough clout to filibuster popular bills and prevent progress.
The U.S. population has grown by about 30% since the federal benches’ last meaningful expansion in 1990. Thus it’s past time for Congress to expand the number of lower courts.
Above all, there’s a need in America for a great reconciliation, for healing of the divisions and animosities between races, generations and factions. We live in a time of great change, of great anxiety and of great confusion.
People lose trust in institutions when they fail. Institutions fail when people mistrust them. We need to break that cycle.
Jim Martin can be reached at email@example.com