Brooks identifies a number of the symptoms of our Late Modern age and he even proposes some possible social remedies but he does not identify the root cause and the real answer.
During most of the 20th century, through depression and wars, Americans expressed high faith in their institutions. In 1964, for example, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time. Then came the last two moral convulsions. In the late 1960s and ’70s, amid Vietnam and Watergate, trust in institutions collapsed. By 1994, only one in five Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing. Then came the Iraq War and the financial crisis and the election of Donald Trump. Institutional trust levels remained pathetically low. What changed was the rise of a large group of people who were actively and poisonously alienated—who were not only distrustful but explosively distrustful. Explosive distrust is not just an absence of trust or a sense of detached alienation—it is an aggressive animosity and an urge to destroy. Explosive distrust is the belief that those who disagree with you are not just wrong but illegitimate. In 1997, 64 percent of Americans had a great or good deal of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens; today only a third of Americans feel that way.
Falling trust in institutions is bad enough; it’s when people lose faith in each other that societies really begin to fall apart. In most societies, interpersonal trust is stable over the decades. But for some—like Denmark, where about 75 percent say the people around them are trustworthy, and the Netherlands, where two-thirds say so—the numbers have actually risen.
In America, interpersonal trust is in catastrophic decline. In 2014, according to the General Social Survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, only 30.3 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted,” the lowest number the survey has recorded since it started asking the question in 1972. Today, a majority of Americans say they don’t trust other people when they first meet them.
Is mistrust based on distorted perception or is it a reflection of reality? Are people increasingly mistrustful because they are watching a lot of negative media and get a falsely dark view of the world? Or are they mistrustful because the world is less trustworthy, because people lie, cheat, and betray each other more than they used to?
There’s evidence to suggest that marital infidelity, academic cheating, and animal cruelty are all on the rise in America, but it’s hard to directly measure the overall moral condition of society—how honest people are, and how faithful. The evidence suggests that trust is an imprint left by experience, not a distorted perception. Trust is the ratio between the number of people who betray you and the number of people who remain faithful to you. It’s not clear that there is more betrayal in America than there used to be—but there are certainly fewer faithful supports around people than there used to be. Hundreds of books and studies on declining social capital and collapsing family structure demonstrate this. In the age of disappointment, people are less likely to be surrounded by faithful networks of people they can trust.
That is from David Brooks’ latest, a lengthy essay in The Atlantic. In that essay he describes the collapse of trust in America and the increasing sense of social alienation that many of us experience. Of course, in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdowns, especially in densely populated “blue” states (i.e., those American states where urban and suburban voters choose large, expensive, culturally, politically, and fiscally liberal (usually Democrat) governments) we are all experiencing alienation on steroids. We are required by health regulations not to hug or even shake hands with others. We are required to wear masks and to stay at least six feet from others. If someone wanted to invent a way to intensify the growing sense of alienation and that lack of trust that Americans have been experiencing, this would be the perfect way to do it. Of course, it seems obvious that some authorities have actually capitalized on the crisis, by alienating us from one another, in order to increase their degree of control over our daily lives. In some places (again, mostly blue states) Americans may shop indoors and even go to the indoor mall but we may not gather indoors for public worship—not even if we practice social distancing, good hygiene, and wear masks. As more than one Supreme Court justice has observed recently, it is difficult to interpret such incoherence and inconsistency as anything but sheer hostility to religion (see the resources below).
Brooks is correct in much that he writes in his analysis. Faith in institutions generally has declined. I have seen and experienced it myself. Some scholars trace the loss of confidence in government to the Watergate affair, in which an American President resigned after covering up what the president’s press secretary call a “third rate burglary.” That analysis is probably too simplistic but venality does come at a cost. Public trust is grounded in civic righteousness. Note well that I am not talking about righteousness before God but only righteousness before men and especially righteousness in our common, civil life. This is nothing more than adherence to the natural law insofar as it applies to the state.
Our Information Age
We expect judges, elected representatives, senators, and presidents to conduct themselves with some degree of decency. Our trust that is happening has declined as the information age has exploded. We know more and we know it more quickly than ever before about who said or did what to whom. Further, because of the tremendous rush of information, we are bombarded with a lot of false or misleading information. After any big story it is almost imperative that the reader what for at least 24 hours before beginning to decide what really happened because the initial reports are almost always and completely wrong. This is because all media companies are driven by clicks and eyeballs. What they sell to advertisers is the number of clicks on a website and the number of viewers. That is it. That is all that matters to most all of them. They are all little more than entertainment companies now masquerading as news organizations. Few so-identified journalists are actually that any more. They are media personalities trading on the tiny fragment of credibility that profession once had. The evidence for this dim but realistic view of the media is revealed daily on Twitter, where these media personalities reveal what they really think about the world and the consumers of their product. This flood of misleading information is disheartening, confusing, and leads to cynicism, which is the definition of the inability or refusal to trust.