We no longer trust each other, or America. It’s our core problem.

Summary: We’ve frittered away the 2016 election talking mostly about personalities and trivia. But this partisan sniping, each side seeing only its own version of America, reveals the breakdown of trust that social scientists have long warned about. Deteriorating for decades, it has become one of our core problems. It makes solutions to other problems almost impossible.

“Mankind are not held together by lies. Trust is the foundation of society. Where there is no …trust, there can be no society.”
— By Frederick Douglass in “Our Composite Nationality“, 7 December 1869.

Broken trust

The Decline of Trust in the United States

By Josh Morgan at Medium, 20 May 2014.
“A Look at the Trend and What Can Be Done About It.”

“Trust is the glue that binds people together. …Trust is correlated with —

“…Data from the DDB Life Style Survey indicates that trust began to increase throughout the country after World War II, and rose steadily through the 1960s. According to the data, trust peaked in 1967–1968, when roughly 56% of survey respondents agreed that “most people can be trusted.” From there, trust began to decline, and the trend has continued ever since.

A poll published by the Associated Press and GfK found that only 1 in 3 three Americans would agree that “most people can be trusted.” …Pew found that less than 1 in 5 adults trusted the government in Washington. In the workplace, the American Psychological Association found that roughly 1 in 4 adults did not trust their employers. …The Pew Research Center recently found that less than 1 in 5 adults between 18 and 29 years old believed that most people could be trusted, which is lower than the general population. Harvard’s Institute of Politics also found that political trust was low among Millenials {sic}.

“…Using the 2012 edition of the General Social Survey (GSS) data set, I was able to compare how groups in different categories responded to the variable “trust”, which asks, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” This was the variable used by Pew and the AP-GfK to determine trust among the general public and among Millenials. {sic}”

GSS on Trust: 1972-2012

—————————– Read the article in full! —————————–

We don’t trust each other, but we really distrust the government

Gallup has been running its confidence in institutions poll since 1972, giving us another perspective on this problem. The trends are terrifying, with confidence in our key institutions falling — especially in our governing institutions, except for the military and police (which is terrifying, in a different way). This is among our greatest problems, and makes solutions to our other problems far more difficult.

Gallup: Confidence in Institutions - June 2016

Gallup: confidence in leaders and people - September 2016

Gallup: Confidence in Government Institutions - 2015


Social cohesion is the essence of politics in a Republic, which we’ve forgotten. Historically it was America’s great strength. We rely on it as the foundation for our key social and political institutions. And we’ve lost it. We fractured into tribes, each with their own tribal truths and mistrust of other tribes. This makes collective action — even communication — difficult. It makes us easy to rule.

It’s also unnecessary. We have stopped listening to each other, become too trusting of propaganda, and lost respect for each other. Fragmented we are weak. All our wealth and military power means little if we cannot stand together to face the myriad challenges of the 21st century.

November 8 is a good day to think about this — after you vote — and you can take a first step to fix it.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about confidence in institutions, ways to reform America (steps to a new politics), and especially …

  1. Examples of blind allegiance to tribal truths, keeping us weak & ignorant.
  2. Gallup warns us to prepare for fascism!
  3. Government officials’ lies erode the Republic’s foundation. Do we care?
  4. The essence of politics in a Republic, which we’ve forgotten.
  5. Much of what we love about America was true only for a moment.

18 thoughts on “We no longer trust each other, or America. It’s our core problem.”

    1. (1) Turchin is an academic it shows. He can be a bit pedantic but his research seems to be solid. Overall, I liked him and will be looking for more of his work.

      (4) I have talked with thousands of people over the last 40+ years, asking them about their political beliefs and why they believe that way. I have always sought to find common ground and to ask how they could find themselves agreeing with people on the other side. My overall success rate is probably about 80-85% but has been notably lower over the last 6 years and this year it has probably been in the neighborhood of 25-30%.

      The primary reasons for this seem to be:
      a) A large percentage of intelligent and/or well-educated people from all levels of society no longer want to discuss public affairs. The perception is that it is too dirty or too hopeless.
      b) National-level politics are becoming too divisive. Dolly Madison did this country a great favor by getting members of political parties to see each other as human beings. The tribalism you mention in your article is getting more profound and it is getting difficult for even people at the Milpub to have a civil discussion.

      One of the things that Turchin talks about is vertical and horizontal integration. Speaking far too briefly, vertical integration is how easy you find it to talk with your congresspeople, aldermen, police officers, etc. Horizontal integration is a measure of how easy it is to talk to your neighbors in a way that will have a positive outcome. Authoritarian governments thrive by reinforcing vertical integration and degrading horizontal integration. Eventually the citizen comes to feel they can only get things done through the state.

      Things feel very much like they are now changing very rapidly. For example, where I live lawn signs supporting candidates are tremendously fewer in number than in past years and tend to only be about local candidates. This is a big change from even 2 years ago and a huge change from 4 years ago. Lawn signs used to be a surprisingly good way to understand support for candidates or issues but now they are mostly gone and there is one less way opportunity for horizontal engagement.

  1. I recently came to the same conclusion after reading War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires by Peter Turchin (this isn’t my great discovery, it is a major theme of the book).

    The good news is that this is primarily a national-level problem, state and local governments mostly seem to work as well as they did before the national trend became so prevalent. Jim Fallows came to the same conclusion in his article on “How America is putting itself back together,” amazing things can happen when people come together for a common purpose and trust each other.

    While I completely agree with your thesis that rebuilding trust is a good thing and can happen, I have to share my recent experiences with one of the major political parties. Per your recommendations, I have been getting more and more heavily involved in one of the parties, donating time and money. This is something I have avoided for the last 6 or so election cycles and the experience is disheartening.

    I am being hit with a blizzard of emails, all wanting my immediate support (primarily financial) for specific individuals and causes. I have learned to investigate the facts presented in the emails because I have found that any sort of response tends to get me even more emails on the topic. The sad thing is that somewhere around 90% of the emails contain nothing but lies. I have only been giving positive responses to the emails that are at least 50% truthful. As the election creeps ever closer the truthfulness of the emails has taken a severe dive and has essentially excluded me from the party’s late election process. Attempts to communicate up the party chain of command to recommend more truthfulness have earned me only anger and contempt. “Why would we want to go there? We’d lose for sure,” is a quote from one of the responses.

    Creating a third party in modern America is essentially impossible so we have to reform the leadership of the two major parties to view truthfulness as important and trust-building as vital. This is a huge paradigm shift for them but the national level of governance cannot be repaired without it.

    1. Pluto,

      Thank you for your interesting comments!

      (1) What did your think of Turchin’s book? I have a review copy of Ages of Discord on my desk, which I hope to review the weekend after next (there is one review book ahead of it).

      (2) The data shows that this is a personal level problem, affecting institutions on all levels — from the local Boy Scouts and Rotary to the White House. Local governments just rely less on social cohesion, as seen in the extreme cases of big city machines and authoritarian small towns.

      (3) You have taken the first step on the road to political reform, and encountered two factors I’ve long written about. First, the system is built on lies. The political leaders you deal with are correct. We want lies. If there was a “reality-based” community/constituency, then we would be in better shape. There isn’t. Building these is an essential step for reform. I can point to some of my posts discussing this, listed here.

      (4) Second, as you have discovered — a lone citizen is powerless. You have to find others who share your views, and organize. Talk to the people at your political party. And friends, neighbors, co-workers. Meet over coffee or booze or whatever. Great movements have started with this small step. Keep up the great work. Please tell us how it is going.


  2. Great and significant and of course a terrifying Post.
    Good work and a good comment.
    Yes. You cannot penetrate the workings of a Party alone. Tried many times say, five years ago.
    Even trying to engage the true believers who phone is futile. They are either just too young, too uninformed or so thoroughly entrenched that discussion is futile.
    This is a adventure only with like minded people. That does get attention and such on local issues in my urban area.
    The pushback is severe but relatively sometimes short lived, I will say that too is no holiday.

    Strong words, but these Things are built on lies.
    Is any more Evidenced needed other than the revelations via Wiki and say D. Brazille? Podesta?


  3. Editor,

    Loss of trust? It’s built in to the political system.

    Suggesting divestiture of the two major parties in to one, an American party. IMO, labels are a big part of the problem. Gallup (http://www.gallup.com/poll/166763/record-high-americans-identify-independents.aspx) recently indicated the greatest percentage of folks self-identify as independents. This would seem to indicate a (growing) lack of identification with the two majors. While at the same time we’re seeing an increase in ‘propaganda’ initiated with ‘the leftists’ or ‘the righties’ as a blanket attack approach. If one doesn’t identify with a group, then ‘they’ must be an enemy and not to be trusted.

    Because folks are busy and feel un-empowered many don’t participate. ‘Only’ 128M out of over 300M in population ‘decided’ the 2012 election (https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/2012/popular-vote.html). The percentage split between the two majors was thin, and by all appearances will be again this go around. The tendencies of states party affiliations mean some states receive all the focus and some receive almost none under the current approach.

    Currently independents are ‘divided’ by the parties via the parties efforts to bring independents to ‘their’ side. IMO that’s backwards. If Gallop is correct, shouldn’t ‘the parties’ come towards independents? Majority rules?

    So how could this be allowed to occur? By removing the major party labels.

    De-labeling would (hopefully) lead to a finer evaluation of individuals and positions by the electorate because ‘straight party’ voting would no longer exist. Currently, if one ‘feels’ un-empowered yet is still drawn to participate out of patriotism an uncomplicated approach is to not vet candidates but just vote straight ticket. This is a bit of a lazy solution. This characterization is not meant as derogatory as presumably some identify fully with an entire ticket but is there a high likelyhood this is accurate, or just voting for a ‘team’? Removal of the process of straight party voting would ideally lead to greater levels of vetting and voter involvement. And, in addition, this label removal should lead to ending ‘consensus’ voting blocks in our representative bodies (I.E. Congress/Legislations). Current labeling has devolved in to an us vs. them approach. My simplistic thinking suggests this approach is completely counter to a ‘we the people’ ideal.

    For myself, a self-identified independent, I find value in some of the positions of varying candidates but no connection with the entirety. As a self-identified American Party affiliate trust would be implied as we’d all be on the same team/tribe as a starting point instead of starting from polarized positions. Folks who currently identify strongly with one of the current majors could seek out candidates which most closely represent their worldviews, so they would be as empowered as they currently are. Greater empowerment could be attained because folks would not feel or actually be pressured to support a candidate out of party loyalty.

    No idea if others might agree, modify, or discard. But in order to ‘build trust’ one must feel comfortable with presenting ideas and tossing them out for alternative views. Consider this an experiment to see what happens here. Might be fun to kick around.

    Thank you for the forum.

    1. Danny,

      “Loss of trust? It’s built in to the political system.”

      That is not an accurate explanation unless you can explain when it was added to the political system. Decreasing trust must correlate to a current phenomenon, not structural features in a 200 year old political system.

      1. Editor,
        Thank you, but I disagree. While the existence of the parties have a long history the issues have changed and expanded. IMO this is why there is such a change in the divisiveness as evidenced via this Pew work (animation embedded which you might find of interest: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/12/7-things-to-know-about-polarization-in-america/). +/- 2008 seems to be a change point by eyeing that animation.

        Just because the party system was ‘installed’ even centuries ago does not make that system static. The parties at that time were different than today. So a better question, IMO, is has the party system as it exists moved away from the electorate, vise versa, or likely both?

        Was there evidence of a greater level of trust earlier? When did that change? Has the evolution of the parties of today enhanced or reduced that? Does the party system as it exists reflect the electorate (I suggest not based on the growth of independents)? From where did the expansion of the ‘independent’ contingent evolve? “Decreasing trust must correlate to a current phenomenon” I propose is a result of the morphing of the parties due to an ever expanding range of issues. While this is not inherently negative it certainly doesn’t lend itself to ‘greater trust’.

        Parties have formed and disappeared. They have morphed. We’ve had instances of more than two (including now). And even if we don’t come to an agreement, does this lack of agreement dismiss the merit of the single party discussion as a method to increase trust? There is no law against. What we have now has issues. Why not move towards a different approach? I’d be interested in your ideas for improvement, not just shooting down the overall discussion.

      2. Danny,

        (1) “Thank you, but I disagree.”

        I wasn’t disagreeing. I just said you had not provided an explanation.

        (2) “Was there evidence of a greater level of trust earlier?”

        Yes. that is the entire basis of this post.

        (3) “I propose is a result of the morphing of the parties due to an ever expanding range of issues.”

        First, what evidence is there for an “expanding range of issues”. That seems unlikely, imo. Second, even if so — why would that decrease the US public’s trust/confidence in the political system and the wider range of US institutions (e.g., church, news media, banks)?

      3. Editor,

        Okay. Much I thought was self evident. Since it was suggested to think about the lack of trust on Nov. 8th I directed comments towards politics. It was never an attempt to address the issue in all the segments (church, banks, news media as well as politics). Eating a pie starts with a first bite.

        I cannot fully explain why there is such a lack of trust between the parties. I’d postulate that it was ‘added’ to the system upon inception, otherwise why was there a need for more than one?

        As far as the trend of ‘decreasing’ trust correlating to current phenomena I thought you’d addressed that in your post, links, and others comments as being in part due to propaganda (e-mails with lies) and the like so I was discussing that as a given. And based on the linked Gallup graphs the trends have gone both up and down and there is no direct ‘correlation’ with each of those transitions.

        “expanding range of issues” includes (attempting to differentiate from +/- 1940). Racial issues, gender issues, social media, LGBT, Religious issues (sheer number of them, not that they exist), eh…….too long so I went and looked up the 8 pages of issues in the Democratic party platform of 1940 vs. the 55 pages of 2016. Then the Republican platform of 1940 totalling 6 pages and 2016 is 66 pages. I’d postulate that an ever increasing intrusion into the minutiae of life might be a portion of the reason for reduction in trust of government in part due to expanding groups of cultures, global warming (didn’t exist at initiation), internet, expanding populations, and each (and many more) demand attention.

        Now if we may get to the broad discussion of single vs. multi party, I’d be interested in your ideas for improvement.

      4. Danny,

        Thanks for explaining! That answers many of my questions.

        (1) “I cannot fully explain why there is such a lack of trust between the parties. I’d postulate that it was ‘added’ to the system upon inception, otherwise why was there a need for more than one?”

        The intensity of dislike and polarization has increased quite markedly since the 1960s. Just because there are two parties, they don’t necessarily hate each other. But the trust we’re discussing is not between the two parties of American citizens to their political system.

        (2) “And based on the linked Gallup graphs the trends have gone both up and down…”

        Gallup describes these as a broad decline in confidence. I agree. The trend is quite strong; their data goes back to 1972 in the key series.

        (3) “as being in part due to propaganda (e-mails with lies)”

        Yes, that’s my theory (although only weakly supported). Like most theories, it raises more questions than it answers. Such as: what accounts for our increased susceptibility to propaganda? My guess is that we’ve grown weary of carrying the burden of self-government. So reading the news is entertainment, not an operational task for citizenship.

        (4) “an ever increasing intrusion into the minutiae of life might be a portion of the reason for reduction in trust of government”

        That’s creative research, and a conclusion that warrants some thought! Thanks for sharing that insight!

        (5) “Now if we may get to the broad discussion of single vs. multi party”

        I doubt that tinkering with the machinery will make any useful difference. IMO we no longer want to be citizens. Unless that changes the only question will be who rules us and how — choices in which we will have only a small role. Hence my recommendations (tentative): https://fabiusmaximus.com/america/political-reform-67124-2/

      5. Editor,

        Thank you. This: “IMO we no longer want to be citizens.” never occurred to me. Will have to digest in conjunction with your #3. Thank you for the 2015 link. Much to peruse.

        One final thought is I’ll be looking to form some sort of comparison of the changes (expansions) in communication as it correlates with the trends in trust, out of curiosity. Thinking out loud that as communications volume has increased (Global internet????) is there a corresponding reduction in trust. GSS as well as Gallup charts began 1972 so not sure how would generate for prior. The thinking goes to propaganda discussion but population composition changes and increases which potentially impacts not knowing our communities must be a consideration also. If you have any insights they would be appreciated. If not, will sign off here with regards.

      6. Danny,

        Long-term analysis of these things is difficult due to lack of data. The big increase in communications was in the 19th c — optical telegraphs, RRs and steam, transatlantic cables, linotype printing presses. The the early 20thC – radio. I doubt the internet has increased info flow proportionately as those did. So that’s not likely the cause of loss of trust.

        Population composition changes are a 1870-1930 event in the US, with the door reopened in the 1970s. Social cohesion appears to have increased in early 20thC US, despite population changes.

        It’s a complex subject. We can only guess at this point.

  4. The quote by Douglas at the start of this Post is alarming.
    Mr. Morgan lists five correlations to Trust at the beginning of his article.
    Periodically it is mentioned here that we have degenerated into Tribalisms. Accurate and revealing, I sense. A place of refuge when social trust is in decline.

    Not only are most of us weary and negligent of citizenry but also the leaders have increasingly abandoned the sacredness of the responsibility to govern equitably. Simply there is a loss of knowledge and working understanding of Democracy; a decline in the sense of a “We”. These are practical and actual real Issues. A Common Good.
    Trust is never just about “me”. And a society is never well ordered when the focus is spuriously on any individual group or tribe. We cannot simply “leave” people behind.

    If you do not have a historical knowledge of Democracy, a philosophical grounding in its evolving forms and lack a working knowledge of economics and modern finance then you must acquire such to take on the role of a citizen. Sadly such is greatly lacking.
    Reflecting it seems evident that the groups, the Citizens alone, have the power and responsibility to demand of themselves and the others who are charged with the responsibility to govern us all to immediately begin to restore the elements of Trust.
    Are you yourself, Trustworthy?

    Very serious Post.


  5. Pingback: Trust In American Society – Mountain View Mirror

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