I have been thinking about trust. All the polls show and have for some time what you already know: America’s trust in its leaders and institutions has been falling for four decades. Trust in the federal government has never been lower. In 1958 Pew Research found 73% trusted the government to do what is right “always” or “most of the time.” That sounds healthy. As of 2017 that number was 18%. That’s not.
Other institutions have suffered, too—the church, the press, the professions. That’s disturbing because those institutions often bolster our national life in highly personal ways. When government or law turns bad, they provide a place, a platform from which to stand, to make a case, to correct.
A problem that has so many parts and so much history—from Vietnam to Twitter bots—will not easily be solved. But there are things we can do individually to help America be more at peace with itself.
First, realize this isn’t merely a problem but a crisis. When you say you believe in and trust democratic institutions, you are saying you believe in and trust democracy itself. When you don’t, you don’t. When a nation tells pollsters it’s unable to trust its constituent parts it’s telling pollsters it doesn’t trust itself.
It’s time to see our mighty institutions with their noble facades—the grand marble court houses, the soaring cathedral—for what they are: secretly frail and in constant need of saving.
When you’re young and starting out you imagine institutions are monoliths—big, impervious to your presence. Later, having spent time within, you know how human and flawed it all is, and how it’s saved each day by the wisdom and patience—the quiet heroism—of a few. Be one of the few.
If you’re young it would be good at this point to enter your profession with a premature sense of the frailty of everything.
Six years ago I was invited to speak to a small West Point class. Polls had come out showing that the U.S. military still retained the trust of the people, and this was much on my mind. I wondered if the cadets knew how much was riding on them.
I told them the institution they’re about to enter was among the last standing, and one of their great jobs will be to keep it trustworthy.
Naturally maintaining their institution’s moral stature was not the main focus of their minds. So I told them a story of a great army of the West, admired by all, that did something wrong, and then a series of things, and by the end, when it came out, as such things do, it broke that army’s reputation in a way from which it never quite recovered. I was speaking of France and the Dreyfus affair. They had not heard of it.
There should be a course in it.
I urged them to conduct themselves so that such a thing could never happen in the U.S. Army. I don’t think I left them rushing to download Émile Zola on their iPads. I do think they were hearing for the first time how much America depends on them not only for military expertise but to keep up the national morale.
In many ways we’re too national in our thinking. Don’t always be thinking up there. Be thinking here, where life takes place. In building trust think close to home. If your teenager judges an institution called Business in America by the billionaire hedge funder spouting inane thoughts on cable TV with a look on his face that says “See how original I am!” then capitalism is doomed. You can’t make your teenager admire slippery, rapacious tech gods in Silicon Valley. But if your children understand business in America as modeled by you—as honorable men and women engaged in an honorable pursuit—then they will have respect for the institution of business. If for no other reason be honest in your dealings, be compassionate, and provide excellence.
Realize there’s a difference between skepticism and cynicism, that one is constructive and the other childish.
Skepticism involves an intellectual exercise: You look at the grand surface knowing it may not reflect the inner reality. It implies action: If it doesn’t, try to make it better. Cynicism is a dodge: Everything’s crud, you’d be a fool to try and make it better, it’s all irredeemable and unchangeable.
Be skeptical of our institutions, not cynical toward them.
For those who operate on any level of our public life, hear this: Some of our problems can be resolved or made less dramatic and assaultive by an old-fashioned concept that used to exist in American public life. It is called tact. We are in an epidemic of tactlessness, which is an absence of respect for the other side, for whoever is on that side. It is an utter lack of generosity and sensitivity.
“Bake my cake” is, among other things, a stunning example of lack of tact. You’re supposed to win graciously, not rub the loser’s face in it.
If you are, say, in the U.S. Congress, where both parties failed for a quarter-century to regulate our borders effectively, and those forced to live with the results of that derogation rise up and demand action, the correct response is not to imply they are nativist racist bigots.
You listen to people, you don’t label them insultingly.
A tactful response? “We take your point—we haven’t succeeded and we’ll try to get it right. In the meantime, since we’re all imperfect human beings, please don’t let your anger turn into something small, biased and narrow. While you investigate your heart, we will get to work.”
You lose nothing when you hear and respect criticism. You gain trust.
Finally, we ask so much of government, which is not, we know, the most competent of institutions. When we ask too much and multiply its tasks, it’s likely to fail, and when it does we become angry—and trust goes down again.
Our founders were skeptical of concentrated power. The power of government, arrayed against the individual, could crush him. They devised checks, balances, enumerated rights. Those who believe in their wisdom should speak of it more persuasively.
To this day many Republicans speak of what they call “limited government.” This is an unfortunate and unpersuasive phrase. Usage changes. To most people “limited” means insufficient, not up to the task. “He had the heart of a quarterback but was limited by his small stature.” Americans know they have limited government. They’ve been to the DMV. What they’d like is a government that acknowledges its limits and understands itself as one of many players in the democratic drama—not the central player but a present and competent one. A realistic government, a humble government, at the very least a more collegial one.
President Trump cannot help. Increasing public trust is not his declared mission, and what it would take is not in his toolbox. He tends in his statements to undermine trust: His own government is embarked on a deep-state witch-hunt conspiracy, his agencies are incompetent, the press is fake-news liars.
What can be handled by us, should be. We can’t go forward this way.