Trust is necessary for more than just individual psychological health. It's also part of every culture's foundation. It's a kind of glue that helps hold people together.
Unfortunately in the U.S. that glue seems to be weakening. Data from the General Social Survey shows that reported distrust of other people--people in general—has increased since the 1970s. Similarly, in Gallup polls conducted over the last forty years, measures of confidence in American institutions, such as government, banking, the media, etc., have dropped noticeably. And Pew Research Center surveys reveal Americans as more politically polarized now than at any time in the recent past. Increasingly those who hold different views on political or cultural issues view one another as outright enemies, as existential threats.
The divisions and distrust hobbling America form a complicated pattern. For some time now the division most harmful to the country--as a whole--has been an economic one. It is a class issue. It is a matter of the rich running off with the spoils at the expense of our common good. I will not address that issue again here, but if interested please see “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”, another of my essays on this site.
However the strongest emotional fuel for our divided, distrustful atmosphere, the ingredient that makes people most hateful, is not the depredation of plutocrats. For nearly sixty years there has been a resurgence, in various forms, of our country’s most problematic issue: race-related conflict. It may not have led to another civil war, but it has clearly contributed to strident polarization and political deadlock.
As many analysts have noted, in the twentieth century prior to the mid-60’s, the Democratic and Republican parties were more internally diverse. Democrats, for example, included not only civil rights liberals but also southerners committed to maintaining Jim Crow suppression of blacks. Such internal diversity resulted in more overlap between the parties, and therefore, in general, they were more cooperative with one another.
However, when the Democratic president Lyndon Johnson finally secured the long overdue Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, things began to change. Newly enfranchised southern blacks streamed into the Democratic Party. Southern whites began to abandon their longtime home with Democrats for a new place among Republicans. Steadily Democrats became the party of civil rights, and Republicans of racial conservatism.
At the same time another racial and ethnic issue began to brew. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended the immigration quotas in place since 1921. As a consequence immigration from several parts of the globe began to swell, increasing the percentage of nonwhites in the population. These nonwhites aligned primarily with Democrats, further exacerbating the schism.
With a kind of ideological magnetism that would only deepen the divide, the parties already sorted by perspectives on race began, especially during the Reagan administration, to sort by religion as well. Evangelical Christians increasingly identified with and were supported by the Republican Party, while secularism steadily increased among Democrats. And so Republicans became not only the party of the affluent, not only the party of white people, but also the party of fundamental Christians.
The fusion of these three issues into one helps to account for the self-destructive voting pattern of many middle and lower income white people, both in the South and elsewhere. Although their economic interests would be (somewhat) better served by the party with a stronger redistributive ethos, their choice of the Republican ticket carries a perk. It includes, in that famous phrase of Du Bois, the “psychological wage” of whiteness. However else their lives might be going, it allows these voters to maintain some sense of superiority.
This particular fusion of the issues—money, race, religion—is also a prominent factor in the unrestrained vitriol of our debates, and in the poisonous miasma of distrust that has settled over public discussion.
The rancor has not been softened by the culture of our universities. The role of higher education in the current cycle of enmity is complex. On the one hand, the university's commitment to multiculturalism over the last fifty years has been mostly a positive social force. Without question it has helped to forge an important solidarity within various disempowered groups, primarily those defined by race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. And directly or indirectly it has been an important factor in the gains made for the protection and freedom of these groups.
On the other hand, the increasing significance of identity within the university has set it apart from some other segments of the U.S. populace. Conservative rural whites in particular are likely to see the university as interested in anyone but them. The preoccupation of students with identity poliics, and their corresponding de-emphasis on the common civic good, is seen by many as a fragmenting force, not without some justification. And perception of the university as a militantly liberal institution, reinforced by widely publicized protests against conservative speakers, has deepened the alienation.
What might be seen as a basic role of the university, its various pursuits of "truth", has itself fallen prey to more than usual contention. The recent so-called “post-truth” controversy is both an expression of and a contributor to such dispute.
In the post-truth world, politics overrules facts. Outright lies, along with the motivated errors of willful ignorance, can pass for truth if they feel right politically. At present the most notorious purveyor of post-truth is the feckless demagogue in our oval office, but of course it was hardly his invention. The tactic has a long, grim history among his fellow authoritarians and opportunists, in the U.S. and throughout the world.
The tactic has been popular in the corporate sector as well. And in that context it usually involves paying one’s own experts to keep a controversy going. For example, such interests were at work in the fake news generated about climate science. It cast global warming, actually a settled issue, as somehow a matter of great controversy. And on cue doubt and distrust ticked up. Of course much of the funding for this was supplied by the oil companies.
As distrust slides toward the radical, we move toward infinite regress. No dialogue of resolution is feasible. No matter how extensively researched, evidence coming from outside one’s tribe—whatever that might be—is assumed to be at least distorted, if not blatantly fraudulent.
All these dynamics were of course well underway before the digital revolution, but they worsened quickly after it. The new machine allowed people to argue from the solitude and anonymity of their own homes, instantaneously, and without censorship. It was tailor made to draw out the worst in us.
Digital talk, the leviathan of our age, multiplies the strength of all divisions. The nature of its operation promotes the current savagery of our discourse. Anonymity in particular facilitates aggression. It also encourages endless streams of falsehoods, growing exponentially, distorting every discussion, and clouding the value of truth.
But the medium promotes more than just lies and aggression. It also facilitates a kind of insularity. We all prefer to read opinions we agree with, and the internet is happy to help. Specialized platforms make it exceedingly convenient to indulge our confirmation bias, listening happily to things we endorse. The resulting feedback loop, the endless idea circle in which each of us tends to live, has been aptly called the internet's "echo chamber", with every person in a “news silo”.
And so we break into hostile camps, wary, bitter, and cynical. Any accusation: true. All facts: contested.
It was hoped that the advent of instant, universal communication would enhance knowledge, creativity, and cooperation. Looking back now, a balanced reckoning must admit that in a few ways, at least, it has promoted those goals. But the key to its success—limited filters—has also unleashed a libelous cacophony. And the filters that do operate, serving mainly personal preference, have promoted crippling polarization.
It is difficult to see how this particular genie might be put back in the bottle. The situation is unyielding. Not much more in the way of helpful filtering--what might be called curating--of internet content can be expected from the private sector. The moment to moment competition is too fierce. And curation from the government, directly or indirectly and regardless of rationale, presents a slippery slope.
My own very limited suggestion here involves the personal level. I think it may be helpful for most of us to make a change in our day to day lives. In particular, I think we need to make more effort to exchange ideas, face to face, with those who differ from us on important issues. To talk, but also to listen.
The face to face context is critical, I think, because it mitigates at least somewhat for civility. And if nothing else we get out from behind the screen for a while, re-entering briefly what we used to call the real world.
Now of course I know that opinions seldom change after such a dialogue. Occasionally, however, something else does change. It may seem small, but it’s important. Every once in a while someone walks away with a greater sense of shared responsibility.