Gathering discusses Americans' lost confidence

Protesters march July 17 in Cleveland before the 2016 Republican National Convention in that city. (Newscom/Polaris/Jeremy Hogan)
This article appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

Washington — U.S. culture is on edge, and different segments of it are at odds over a host of issues, with citizen confidence in once-revered institutions at historic lows. Trust has been on the downslide for a long time.

The latest Gallup poll of Americans' confidence in institutions, released in June, shows that confidence in all institutions, slumping for the past decade, has continued to bottom out. Confidence in newspapers and organized religion is at record lows.

While such evidence of declining trust has been baked into the polling data for years, it was the continual thrum of headlines and stories documenting the results of those divisions that caught the attention of Andrew Yeo and Matthew Green, two professors in the department of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

"It was depressing when you opened the newspapers and saw the headlines and read the stories," Yeo said in an interview with NCR.

He began having informal discussions with colleagues when the headlines were mainly about what was happening in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, disturbing events related to race and police killings of young black men. A lack of trust seemed also to define American politics, with the divisiveness in Congress and the discord between parties, and it was long a characteristic of international politics, where trust was a rare commodity among nation states.

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At the same time, it quickly became clear that trust could mean very different things. How Yeo, who specializes in international relations, looks at trust or distrust among nation states would be vastly different, for instance, from how an anthropologist or psychologist would consider the concept when studying communities or individuals. Among friends, trust usually means something other than trust among political entities or governmental agencies.

"We look at trust in different ways," said Yeo, "and we may end up speaking past one another."

Green, focused on the Congress and its inability to move significantly on most issues, said he was more concerned about the lack of trust among members of that institution than he was about people's lack of trust in the institution as a whole.

"It's one thing if Americans don't trust their institutions -- in theory they could vote new people in. But if the people there don't trust each other," he said, "you can have an institutional culture develop that is particularly damaging because if you have an institutional culture that's full of distrust, it can't work."

With so much distrust in the air, they did what academics often do -- they organized a conference titled "Rebuilding Trust" that was held in April.

The daylong gathering, before a small audience in a room at Catholic University's Pryzbyla Center, happened to fall amid the swirl of anxiety over police killings of young black men and the increasingly bitter tone of the primary season. On April 14, the day of the conference, more than 100 people were arrested in another part of Washington for protesting big money in politics.

Even the small-money politics of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was a demonstration of distrust in the existing system. The day before the academics gathered at Catholic University, the underdog Democratic candidate drew a crowd of 27,000 supporters to New York's Washington Square Park.

In another part of the country, Republican candidate Donald Trump was yelling from a podium that the nomination process was rigged.

Enough distrust existed to occupy the conference, but one focus particularly proved predictive of issues that would continue to grab headlines and the country's attention in the months to come. Several talks concentrated on the relationship between black and white America and especially the growing tension between the African-American community and the nation's police forces.

A central question that surfaced: Is it possible to rebuild trust if none existed in the first place?

The point was first raised by sociologist William D'Antonio, senior fellow at the university's Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, a co-sponsor of the event with the School of Arts and Sciences.

D'Antonio was speaking of the growing racial and economic divide appearing in marriage patterns in the United States: Marriage is generally a less prevalent institution among blacks than it is among whites, and among the poor than among the rich. He listed a broad range of socioeconomic reasons for the divide, such as declining unemployment opportunities, rising incarceration rates for black men, and the fact that economic standing "has become increasingly important" for the success of marriage.

He also referred to an update of the controversial 1965 report by then Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York that originally associated the deterioration of the black family with the effects of slavery and predicted that "the racist virus in the American bloodstream" would continue to affect the country for years to come.

D'Antonio concluded by describing the current challenge as "not to rebuild trust, because there never has been a trust that only needs rebuilding. The challenge is to build trust against all odds at local, state and federal levels."

Stephen McKenna, associate professor and chair of media studies, warned against concluding too much from opinion polls about the perception of an increase in distrust. "They tell us nothing definitive about the actual levels of change in social trust. The polls are merely opinions," he said.

He warned, too, against "commonplace journalistic and academic narratives assuming erosions of trust and, even more worrisomely, perhaps implying policy remedies."

Concluding less from polling data, however, did not suggest less of a problem. "It would be a mistake," he said, "to think that policy solutions lie within existing institutions and the prudent application of policy while ignoring or deflecting a far more radical way of grasping the situation." That more radical way acknowledges a fundamental "absence of trust by urban African-Americans in a culture" that has "perpetuated official structures descended from American slavery."

In fact, sometimes the oppressed, in order to survive or accomplish their own goals, need to employ deception and trickery, normally the antithesis of building trust, said Desmond Jagmohan of Princeton University, who used Booker T. Washington as an example of the "politics of deception." Washington, a renowned early 20th-century educator, orator and adviser to presidents, is at once a symbol of black self-reliance as well as a symbol of accommodation to slavery.

"Some see his tactics as accommodation to white supremacists," said Jagmohan. "Others saw him as a corrupt political hack."

Other scholarship shows, he said, that Washington actually conducted a vast civil rights campaign, often funneling white donations to his projects "while simultaneously in public mouthing platitudes and going along."

"While trust is viewed as essential to a functioning society, particularly a liberal democracy, for those living under oppressive conditions, deception may be necessary to survival and mitigating those conditions." Trust, he said, should be seen as a inextricably tied to other conditions, some of which rule out truth, sincerity and authenticity as values "too morally demanding given the context."

However conditional trust might be or whether, in fact, it ever existed enough to be rebuilt, it received some serious challenges in the weeks just ahead of the parties' conventions. Five police officers were killed in Dallas as they protected demonstrators mourning the loss of black men killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. In another round of shootings in Baton Rouge, La., an ambush of police resulted in three law enforcement personnel killed and three others injured.

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large.]

This story appeared in the July 29-Aug 11, 2016 print issue under the headline: Trust on the downslide .

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