“Social Trust is the confidence that other people will do what they ought to do most of the time. Social trust is a generalized faith in the people of your community. It consists of smaller faiths. It begins with the assumption that we are interdependent, our destinies linked. It continues with the assumption that we share the same moral values. We share a sense of what is the right thing to do in different situations.”

At first glance, one might think that this passage was gleaned from the pulpit of a house of worship, but it’s an excerpt from a more comprehensive piece titled: “America is Having a Moral Convulsion,” which New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote for The Atlantic, some three years ago, during the height of the pandemic. 

I revisited this particular work after hearing a talk he’d given recently at the Aspen Ideas Festival in which he discussed various ways in which we might rebuild the trust that has clearly dissolved, not only from our venerable institutions, but from the population at large.

It had me digging deeper and wondering if, on a certain level, this pervasive distrust might be a contributing factor to the divisiveness our society has gravitated towards, and maybe more importantly, if our current, collective state of affairs has reached a precipice that it is beyond repair.

Despite being a self-proclaimed optimist, Brooks paints a rather bleak picture regarding the state of our nation, with its decay dating back to the distrust manifested during the Vietnam War, followed by the corrupt Nixon administration. He uses the phrase “moral convulsions” to describe subsequent decades in which trust has seemingly evaporated before our eyes. In its place, new norms and beliefs have evolved, with completely different rules that tend to run counter to those from prior to that era. Or as he notes, “Falling trust in institutions is bad enough; it’s when people lose faith in each other that societies really begin to fall apart.” 

Indeed, there has been a noticeable decrease in the tolerance level or threshold that many of us have when presented with ideas that differ significantly from our own. Where we once were able to state or debate our opposing case with a modicum of respect for each other, we now see a more fortified, zero-sum response being implemented. 

Brooks takes it to the next level by suggesting: “Shifts in the collective consciousness are no merry ride; they come amid fury and chaos, when the social order turns liquid and nobody has any idea where things will end.”

One point I found particularly interesting was when he put forth the question of whether the decline in trust is a matter of perception or one of reality. In other words, is our increasing distrust of others due to the hyperbolic, distorted views being expressed throughout multiple media sources, or is it because in general, people have become less trustworthy, cheat, lie more often and betray their partners? 

We can’t ignore the fact that in this day and age, with the pervasive nature of social media, literally anyone can create their own platform to espouse whatever beliefs they wish to put forth. Unlike the past, when those who spoke with authority on a given subject actually possessed a reasonable amount of credentials to support their case, these days, they need only to provide listeners with “self-proclaimed” facts from questionable sources that bolster their otherwise distorted agenda. Not until recently have some of these media outlets been taken to court and held financially responsible for spewing such misinformed, malicious falsehoods.

Brooks cites a poll conducted in 2014 by the University of Chicago, in which only 30 percent of American respondents state that they trust others — the lowest figure recorded in the survey’s nearly 50-year history since the question was first asked. 

He argues that there are three groups of folks who appear most suspect of the larger population: those who’ve consistently been marginalized, the lower-middle class or working poor, and lastly, young adults.

African-Americans’ trust in the overall population has dropped precipitously from 43 percent to 18 percent in less than 20 years according to a poll conducted by the Gallup organization. 

The lower-middle class and the working poor, who incidentally make up approximately 40 percent of America, tend to buy into conspiracy theories and viewed the previous president as an alternative to government as usual. 

It may be the last group, those under the age of thirty, that Brooks found to be most suspect of others. In a recent poll done by Pew, an overwhelming majority of Gen Zers don’t trust politicians to make the right choices, and only 35 percent of this group believe that other Americans respect their rights.

In this country, he mentions only one other time in our history where there might be some parallels we can draw from — the industrialization of the late 1800s into the early 20th century. It was a period of great moral convulsion that included massive migration, political unrest and the like, which would ultimately be replaced by a more collaborative, moralistic society.

Though the author didn’t include it in this particular essay, he did leave his audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival with some advice: “This crisis of distrust can only be solved by recognizing each other at the interpersonal level. To build trust, you have to keep on showing up for people. You have to make them feel seen, heard and understood.” 

That’s not a bad place to start, if you ask me.

Dave Davis
Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

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