Trust is necessary for more than just individual psychological health. It is 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 show that reported trust of other people--people in general—has decreased significantly 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. No, that distinction must be reserved for racism, both overt and covert. It may not have led yet to another civil war, but it has clearly produced strident polarization and social dysfunction. It has remained a deep cut through the heart of the nation.
As many analysts have noted, in the twentieth century prior to the mid-60s, 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, 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, where they were welcomed. 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 1924. As a consequence immigration from several parts of the globe began to swell, increasing the percentage of nonwhites in the population. This trend has been substantial enough that whites are predicted to become a minority within a few decades. And the immigrating nonwhites have aligned primarily with Democrats, further exacerbating the party 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, angry over feminism, gay rights, and in particular the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion, were courted by and increasingly identified with the Republican Party. Concurrently, secularism steadily increased among Democrats.
So Republicans, long known as the party of corporate affluence, also became both the party of white people and the party of fundamental Christians. To complicate matters even further, over time these divisions acquired an additional geographic component, with conservatives increasingly living in rural areas and exurbs, and progressives residing in cities and inner-ring suburbs.
The fusion of all these issues--economic ideology, race, religion, and geography--into one political division is clearly a prominent factor in the unrestrained vitriol of our debates. It also helps to explain some puzzling data. For example, the self-destructive voting pattern of many middle and lower income whites, both in the South and elsewhere. Although their economic interests would be (somewhat) better served by the party with a stronger commitment to redistribution, their choice of the Republican ticket carries a perk. It includes, in that famous phrase of Du Bois, the “psychological wage” of whiteness. However poorly their lives might be going, it allows these voters to cling to some sense of superiority.
All this 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 a positive social force. Without question it has helped 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 politics, and their corresponding de-emphasis on the common civic good, is seen by many as a fragmenting force. Perception of the university as an intolerant institution, reinforced by widely publicized student protests over conservative speakers, has deepened the alienation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pew surveys show that while most people with four-year college degrees (only) in 1994 were Republicans, by 2017 most were Democrats. And those with postgraduate experience favored Democrats even more strongly, by about two to one.
The subject of the university brings up a related but larger matter: the status of truth itself in our national climate. Increasingly this has fallen prey to bitter and seemingly unmovable contention. The recent issue of so-called “post-truth”--a term with unnerving Orwellian echoes--is an example of such controversy. The term has actually been around for quite a while, but it suddenly gained new life in the presidential campaign of 2016.
In the post-truth world of the contemporary right (ironically reminiscent of some prior themes among the postmodernist left) politics overrules facts. Outright lies, along with the motivated errors of willful ignorance, pass for truth if they feel right politically. Among the most notorious purveyors of post truth, documented extensively in one exposed lie after another, is the malevolent demagogue in our oval office.
But of course it was hardly his invention. The tactic has a long, grim, and violent record among his fellow authoritarians, both in the U.S. and throughout the world. Examples of its use abound, especially in the twentieth century: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao leap to mind.
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. On cue, doubt and distrust ticked up. Of course much of the funding for this was supplied by the fossil fuel industry.
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.
Day after day these dynamics have been inflamed by the cynical ideologues of cable news and talk radio. For decades they have specialized in generating more heat than light, helping news devolve further into divisive entertainment. And in the process they have generated considerable revenue for their advertisers. But it was the social media revolution that finally pushed the level of our debates to rock bottom. It 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 savagery of our discourse. Anonymity in particular facilitates wild aggression, the stock and trade of internet trolls. It also encourages endless streams of falsehoods, growing exponentially, distorting every discussion, and clouding the value of truth. Russia's internet interference in our 2016 election provides alarming examples of both the lies and the hate mongering. The endless adolescent tweets of our troll-in-chief provide other examples.
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 and personalized search results 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, in whatever form, presents a slippery slope.
If it were possible to wave a wand and make political polarization disappear, compressing all viewpoints into a small spectrum of vanilla centrism, we would be unwise to do so. Substantial difference of opinion is essential grist to our political mill. I make no attempt to disguise my leftist positions, and I ask no one else to mute their own convictions. Conflict is a cost of conducting democratic business, and within limits we should all be grateful for it.
But when conflict reaches its current level of tribal barbarity, caution is advisable.
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.