02 December 2013
Who Do You Trust?
By now it's not news that people don't trust the government or politicians in general to serve the national interest. It may be news that ordinary Americans trust each other far less than they used to. Are these trends related? The new survey highlights distrust in commercial transactions, e.g. the fear that a clerk will steal your credit information or that you'll be ripped off in some other way. In politics, it's more likely that people fear that politicians are simply incompetent, or that they put their parties or personal ambitions before the common good -- but anxiety over corruption is probably also a factor. These anxieties may combine in a deeper, fundamental fear that despite our common citizenship, our neighbors are too often strangers to us who don't really share our interests. Ideology and partisanship magnify these fears: the Democrat sees the Republican as someone who doesn't give a damn whether anyone else lives or dies and will kick anyone to the curb for the sake of the almighty dollar; the Republican sees the Democrat as a freeloader at heart who will try to get away with anything to avoid the honest if unpleasant toil that is his and everyone's obligation. Part of the trust problem is that we're in the middle of an incomplete and contested revolution in values, the welfare state challenging the wilderness, to put each side in the other's pejorative terms, and the wilderness pushing back. Conservatives, whether they're Republicans or not, hope to go back to a time when people did not shirk their basic responsibilities to themselves and their families, as they accuse many Americans of doing, while progressives, whether they're Democrats or not, wait for people finally to recognize their basic responsibilities to the community as a whole, as they assume many Americans still refuse to do. Each side is seen imposing responsibilities upon the other while abandoning their own: the Democrat accuses the Republican of saying "sink or swim!" while outsourcing jobs; the Republican accuses the Democrat of saying "we're all in this together" while making excuses for not pulling his just share of the weight. All the while, many Americans who are neither ideological or partisan see error if not stupidity in the two parties and thus trust no one. I'm not sure whether a republic has been so divided over fundamental values in the past, and it's an open question whether liberal democracy as practiced here can facilitate a reconciliation of those values. Some hope that a "radical center" will emerge to carry out that task, but impatience for its emergence would seem justified by now. It may be that no one in the potential radical center trusts anyone else to take the lead, and it may be that the radical center is just a myth. Where would that leave us? Circumstances may force a pragmatic reconciliation of values or tip the balance one way or another -- more likely toward the wilderness. Do we want to wait for that? Would we rather trust fate than each other? There may be no easier way to seal our fate as a nation and a people.