Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Decline Of Trust

In the 1990s, after academics and pundits began talking about trust, the nation did actually become more trusting. The share of Americans saying they trust government "most of the time" or "just about always" rose from 21 percent in 1994 to 56 percent in 2002. Equally, elections became less abrasively focused on accountability. In 2000, according to John Geer of Vanderbilt University, a relatively low 40 percent of the messages in presidential TV spots were negative, down from 47 percent four years earlier.

But some time after the Iraq invasion, these trends reversed. In 2004 the share of Americans saying they trusted government fell to 47 percent, and this month a CBS News-New York Times poll put it at a rock-bottom 28 percent. Meanwhile Geer's measures show that in the 2004 election negative messages jumped to 50 percent of the total, and he guesses that this year's congressional races are the most negative in history.

This column in Monday's WaPo is excellent. Sebastian Mallaby puts his finger on a baseline change in the way Americans perceive government in this case, but in my view that is an indicator of a larger issue. (Thanks to Steve for the link, found in the comments thread at Mark Cuban's blog.)

The words trust and faith are more than semantically connected. Both mean the same thing in a way, though the word trust sounds secular, faith religious. Is it accidental that the president brought to us partly on the wings of a pop faith angel, Evangelical Christianity, has managed to preside over a decline in our sense of trust/faith?

I have complained before about the trend toward a theology that is a mile wide but only a few inches deep. Such is the legacy of the numbers and revenue-driven mega-church phenomenon. And such seems to be a spin-off of the "Christian Coalition" and its cousins. The bizarre preoccupation with end-times and neo-apocolyptic ruminations comes to mind. Is not that the final expression of the end of all trust? All that remains for the world as we have known it is to come to an end?

There are powerful reasons trust tends to decline and accountability advances. Mobile societies tend to have weak bonds; the Internet makes it easier to hold people accountable and encourages acerbic negativity. And the absence of trust can feed on itself. Leaders function under stifling oversight; this causes them to perform sluggishly, so trust continues to stagnate. But occasionally there is a chance to escape this trap: A shock causes trust to rise, leaders have a chance to lead and there's an opportunity to boost trust still further.

We've recently had a double opportunity. The boom of the 1990s boosted trust in business; the 2001 terrorist attacks boosted trust in government. But CEOs and politicians abused these gifts with scandals and incompetence. Such is the cost of corporate malfeasance and the Iraq war: Precious social capital is destroyed by leaders' avarice and hubris.

I report. You decide.
I'm not making this happen. All I can do is read the papers, see what others are saying and pray for God's grace.

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