One important, overlooked reason the U.S. is in trouble: Mistrust
The poor man sounded exasperated. There were a bunch of letters after his name, and he was deeply involved in local COVID vaccine efforts. “We just don’t understand it,” he said. “Such a large percentage of people not being willing to get a free, lifesaving vaccine is something none of us anticipated.”
At the time, I was driving home from Trader Joes in my Subaru, listening to NPR. Despite being a living stereotype of white middle-aged semi-affluence myself, I was surprised he was surprised. Did this fine, educated gentleman not live in the same country as me? Did he not know history, or had he missed the news for the last 30 years?
I often hear such befuddlement on the Left — not just about COVID vaccines, but about pretty much anything conservatives think or do. Despite research like Jonathan Haidt’s and books like Strangers in Their Own Land, we’re still surprised when “they” won’t do what we think is logical, sane, right, moral — or human. Naively, we still think Trump was an anomaly, and the January 6th insurrectionists were kooks.
Of course we’re not alone in our bafflement, disdain, and anger. Those of us on the Left who have been name-called, trolled, belittled, or dismissed by the Right have been pelted by these same emotions by conservatives who see us as illogical, insane, wrong, immoral — or inhuman.
It seems we all agree, especially since 2016, that we are nation divided. However, in all the many analyses offered by my fellow NPR-listening, Subaru-driving “elites” about why we’re so polarized, one important conclusion seems to be missing:
We don’t trust each other anymore.
This didn’t happen overnight, or since 2016. And we all have really good reasons not to trust “the other side.”
Trust is built and broken in society the same way it’s built and broken in one-on-one relationships. You start with a foundation of commonality and goodwill. You create agreements and rules that you both follow — even (and especially) when times get tough. You keep your word. You respect the other’s personhood even (and especially) when you’re angry, hurt, or scared. You have faith that the other has your best interests at heart, and you include the other’s best interests when making decisions. You commit to, and invest in, the relationship — through consistent actions.
We’ve done a shitty job at relationship in this country for the last several decades. I’m nearly 52, and I remember a time when there was a line that politicians didn’t cross. There were norms around decorum and respect, and violations had consequences. For most, there was a basic commitment to ideals, principles, and goals beyond one’s own self.
I realize this wasn’t true everywhere all the time. I also recognize that our nation was already starting to deteriorate by the time I was in grade school. However, I think it’s fair to say that we used to have some guard rails in place that have since been knocked off the cliff.
Just like in personal relationships, we cannot mistreat each other forever without eventual consequences. Politicians and political parties breaking rules and violating norms encourages a downward spiral of unfair behavior. Leaders lying to, stealing from, abusing, and abandoning their followers causes the populace to lose faith in institutions. Employers chronically mistreating workers leads to quiet rebellion and raucous revolt. Centuries of racial and sexual oppression leads to volcanoes of rage and tornadoes of reckoning. Decades of divestment from infrastructure, education, children, and health creates broken, sick people and crumbling roads.
What exactly did we expect? Or did we not care?
The consequences for our democracy and society are dire. We don’t trust each other anymore, therefore we will not — cannot — believe each other. We will not — cannot — hear each other. We will not — cannot — listen to each other. This is especially true when, in our culture, the word “listen” is used as a euphemism for “obey”.
We’ve lost our foundation of commonality and goodwill. This is partly because we’ve harmed each other too much for too long, and partly because our demographics have shifted faster than our collective identity can keep up. We lost commonality as we woke up and changed, and we haven’t worked to find new commonalities.
We no longer have clear agreements and rules we can trust that everyone will follow. We created rules without involving all the stakeholders (women, POC, children, immigrants) and are surprised that they’re not on board, now that it’s safer to speak up. We boldly violate the rules we did co-create — and fail to uphold meaningful, consistent consequences for doing so. We no longer keep our word. (Many indigenous folks would rightfully argue we never did.)
We’ve disrespected each other’s personhood. We’ve dishonored that which we said we valued and held sacred. We disrespected that which the other side held as sacred.
We’re no longer committed to the other, nor invested in our shared existence. We avoid the other, and wish they’d go away. Wishing for another’s disappearance or annihilation is the definition of hatred. Hatred has set in.
Trust has been violated repeatedly by all sides. Now the chickens are coming home to roost, and natural consequences are catching up. Our nervous systems — individually and collectively — are carrying too much accumulated injury, and are chronically activated by an ongoing sense of threat. We quite literally cannot let the other in. We cannot function as a society this way.
Rupture and repair are the normal ebb and flow of any relationship. Repeated rupture leads to resentment, tension, and mistrust. There are only two ways out of mistrust once it sets in: radical repair, or release.
Right now, the possibilities of radical repair look bleak. We’ve had far too much rupture and far too little repair. We’re all triggered, angry, afraid, righteous, and in victim mode. We are products of a culture that sucks at relational skills, and arguably sucks more than a couple generations ago. Most of our ancestors came to this land to get away from people, were invaded by the people who came here to get away, or were brought here forcibly to do their bidding. We still have not learned to think or act collectively, and any suggestion we do so is labeled communism, fascism, or some other dirty word.
But as a highly social, tribal species, we simply cannot live without other people. Despite our howling about individual freedoms, we are more interdependent on more humans than ever before. Our modern lives are therefore more fragile than ever. The average American doesn’t know how to produce or hunt food, fix vehicles or generators, start a fire, dress a wound, or build a hut. Our money flies around the globe every night in zeros and ones. Our entire monetary system in founded on a mere belief system based on trust in strangers. Our entire economy depends on a belief that the future will be better than today — which is why there’s at least twice as much currency in the system (as credit) than there are physical assets. Homo sapiens has a god-like ability to imagine and believe in that which does not exist. But the downside of that power is that that those beliefs can change at any time.
In the sci-fi series The Expanse, the highly capable and loyal sociopath Amos Burton says, “People are tribal. The more settled things are, the bigger the tribes can be. The churn comes, and the tribes get small again.” The churn is here. The tribes are getting smaller, and if we want to be a functioning nation, we must acknowledge what’s happening. We must each own our part not only in having caused it, but in repairing it.
We need to figure out what we can agree to believe in. We must find the commitment to bind us together to do the hard, messy work of repair and reparations for all the harm done. If we are to live together, we must commit to the very long, very courageous process of rebuilding and nurturing relationship — just like any pair of lovers, friends, or coworkers must do when trust is lost.
Or we must separate. Just like in any relationship where commitment and commonality are lost, agreements repeatedly violated, and injury accumulated, there’s an eventual breaking point. Just like in physics, increasing tension leads to breakage unless the tension can be relaxed, and the ends brought closer together.
Repair or release are our two choices. What’s it gonna be?