One of today’s supreme ironies is that despite unprecedented access to information, unfounded skepticism pervades the nation’s political discourse.
The underlying cause of this troubling phenomenon is complex; however, at least one important factor is America’s growing distrust of society’s traditional gatekeepers and each other. While healthy caution is undoubtedly a virtue, the belief that one cannot trust bedrock social institutions, media outlets or even their own neighbors, has corrosive effects.
According to a General Social Survey, a mere one-third of Americans believe they can trust most people. This is down from half of Americans saying the same in 1972. A recent Pew Research Center study shows only 52 percent of Americans believe they can trust most or all of their own neighbors. Moreover, Gallup survey results show that confidence in the United States’ key institutions remains at historic lows with an average of 32 percent of Americans expressing “a great deal” of confidence.
To reverse this trend, those who run America’s institutions should work to regain trust by acting with integrity. Meanwhile, individuals should seek information not solely from skeptics but also vetted, traditional sources of information as well.
Last week Time Magazine interviewed a man in North Carolina who insisted white people never started a riot in the United States. As the magazine notes, he was in the same town where a monument commemorates an 1898 riot involving white people killing black residents and burning the offices of a black newspaper. That evidence didn’t seem to matter.
Others persist with myths about the President’s birthplace, the real reasons for going to war in Iraq, the validity of the Moon landing and other yarns mostly because they do not “trust” the primary sources of the information.
Last week, James Evans, head of the Utah Republican Party, told a CNN interviewer she ought to speak to Bill Clinton’s illegitimate son. This is, at best, an unsubstantiated allegation from the 1990s. As snopes.com reports, a paternity test back then showed no connection, although, naturally, some have questioned the test’s validity or whether it ever occurred.
Several years ago, Newsweek investigated why Americans are so eager to believe unsubstantiated rumors. The magazine quoted sociologist Steven Hoffman, who said, "For the most part people ... develop elaborate rationalizations based on faulty information."
Franklin D. Roosevelt says, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” It is no wonder, then, that education tends to correlate with greater levels of trust and social cohesion.
Only through trust and credible vetting can they learn to separate legitimate problems and corruption from imagined and exaggerated ones. For many, in addition to personal education, this process must begin with regaining trust in individuals and institutions vital to our society.
People must develop a refined sense of caution while still consulting vetted traditional sources. Perhaps most importantly, they need to learn to set aside their own biases and learn to approach each subject with a mind open to worthy information that might contradict deeply held assumptions. This will cultivate trust while broadening our perspectives, and it will help to reverse the unfounded skepticism that currently pervades the nation’s political discourse.