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Essential trust: How to rebuild trust in America

An abortion rights activist flies an upside down US flag, the international sign of distress, outside of the US Supreme Court during a protest in Washington, DC, on June 26, 2022, two days after the US Supreme Court scrapped half-century constitutional protections for the procedure. - Elected leaders across the US political divide rallied on June 26 for a long fight ahead on abortion -- state by state and in Congress -- with total bans in force or expected soon in half of the vast country. (Photo by Samuel Corum / AFP) (Photo by SAMUEL CORUM/AFP via Getty Images)
An abortion rights activist flies an upside down US flag, the international sign of distress, outside of the US Supreme Court during a protest in Washington, DC, on June 26, 2022, two days after the US Supreme Court scrapped half-century constitutional protections for the procedure. - Elected leaders across the US political divide rallied on June 26 for a long fight ahead on abortion -- state by state and in Congress -- with total bans in force or expected soon in half of the vast country. (Photo by Samuel Corum / AFP) (Photo by SAMUEL CORUM/AFP via Getty Images)

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Studies show a majority of Americans believe other Americans mostly look out for themselves.

The nation has experienced that kind of trust recession before—one low point: the turn of the 20th century.

“There are deep parallels, deep, deep parallels between America in today, 2020. We’re very unequal. They were very unequal. We’re very self-centered,” Robert Putnam says.

“They were very self-centered. We’re very polarized. They were very polarized. And we’re very untrusting and they were very untrusting.”

So how did Americans rebuild trust then?

“It wasn’t a policy change. It was a change in the views that ordinary Americans have about the duties they owe to other people,” Robert Putnam says.

Can we replicate that change today?

Today, On Point: Trust is on the decline. Can it be rebuilt? It’s the final episode in our series Essential trust.


Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Author of the new book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” Also author of “Bowling Alone” and “American Grace.” (@RobertDPutnam)

Show Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Welcome to the final episode of our special series, Essential trust.

LISTENER MONTAGE [Tape]: I’ve lost complete faith in my fellow Americans, not all of them, but a significant number of them. I don’t know that we can ever rebuild that in America. There’s too many people who want to do damage, and I know it’s a very small portion of the population considering, but they’re a large part of the voting population. How do we fix that? 

I am highly skeptical of the government. It’s almost impossible to believe that the government is actually, you know, for and by us. It’s so hard to believe that they’re not listening to, you know, where the money is. You know, it’s just hard to believe that our votes even matter. I vote in every single election because I can’t not. But it’s really difficult to believe that it actually does any good.

I’ve lost trust in the American people. I’ve lost trust in America. I knew there are racists in America, because there are racists everywhere. But the number of people who rejected out of hand the simple statement Black Lives Matter. That was way beyond anything I could have imagined. I did not imagine the people I work with. The people I live near. My next door neighbors.

People I thought were friends. People I went to church with did not believe that Black Lives Matter. They didn’t believe that my life mattered. I’ve lost trust in America. I’ve lost faith in the American people. And at my age, there is no time to regain it.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Cassandra in Norwich, Vermont, Aurora in Santa Cruz, California, and George in Williamsburg, Virginia. They are not outliers, because barely 30% of Americans agree that most people can be trusted. Only 38% of Americans trust the medical system. Only 11% trust television news. And just 7% of Americans say they trust Congress. That’s according to research from the group NORC at the University of Chicago that’s been tracking general society trends since 1972.

So as we heard from a guest, Jamil Zaki, in episode two of our series:

JAMIL ZAKI: We are living through a massive trust recession, and that is hurting us in a number of ways that probably most people are totally unaware of.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, today in our final episode of Essential trust, we are asking, can trust be rebuilt between individual Americans and between you and the institutions of this nation? And if so, how? Well, we’re turning to Robert Putnam to help us answer those questions. He is one of America’s most renowned political scientists. Robert Putnam, welcome to On Point.

ROBERT PUTNAM: Thanks very much, Meghna. It’s a delight to be here. As you probably know, I’m a huge fan of your show, so I’m honored to be on it.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, we’re honored to have you, Professor. But also with us today is Jack Beatty, On Point’s news analyst. Hello there, Jack.

JACK BEATTY: Hello. Meghna. Hello, Professor Putnam.

PUTNAM: Please stop calling me professor. I’m Bob.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, Bob and Jack. And Bob, I’ll first start with you. Those Americans who we heard from at the top of the show just now, they had reached out to us when we asked folks to tell us about, you know, what are their levels of trust in their fellow Americans.

I think the thing that I find most arresting about those people who contacted us is that you can hear their heart break in how they are losing trust, or have lost trust in their fellow Americans. It’s not something that anyone wants or enjoys. I mean, Bob, did you hear something similar?

PUTNAM: Oh, yeah. Those people are perfectly typical of Americans today.

CHAKRABARTI: And Jack, what do you think about the fact that there’s almost this, like, national mourning, that we can’t trust each other anymore?

BEATTY: Yes. And it’s such a change from the circumstances of my young manhood. I mean, Professor Putnam, Bob points out, in the early 1960s, nearly two thirds of Americans trusted other people. But two decades into the 21st century, two thirds of Americans do not. That what a reversal.

CHAKRABARTI: So what’s going on here? Before we figure out, like, how to reverse that reversal, I want to understand from both of you. Bob Putnam, let’s start with you. Why do you think there’s been this trust recession, as we’ve been calling it this week?

PUTNAM: Can I make a preliminary point, Meghna and Jack? There’s a distinction that has been made in all of the sessions you’ve done this week between trust and trustworthiness. And that’s an important distinction. Because trust without trustworthiness, that is, trusting somebody who’s untrustworthy is not a virtue. That’s gullibility. And so the question is, is this a trust recession or a trustworthiness recession, an honesty recession?

And I think all the evidence I’ve seen is that what we’ve really been dealing with, this is true with respect to both institutions and other people, is that there’s been a recession in trustworthiness over this period. Now, I agree, it’s much harder to measure trustworthiness than trust, for a very simple reason. I can ask you if you trust other people and you can tell me whether you do or not. But I can’t ask you whether you’re trustworthy, because you have every incentive to mislead me.

And therefore, most of the work in this area, not all, and that’s helpful, but most of the work in this area has focused on measures of trust, and therefore has not been able to distinguish between a recession in trustworthiness or recession in trust. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m an academic playing with words. It’s very different.

Let me give you a particular example, because we do have some measures of trustworthiness over time. For example, a study was done beginning in the 1970s when Jack was young and I was younger, watching cars behave at a stop sign, I think it was in Westchester, New York, and watching how many people stopped. And in the late sixties, early seventies, which is when the study begins, most people came to the stop sign, whether there were other cars there or not, would stop. And then they’d go on their way to a slowly rolling stop. But it was a stop.

And then when you get into the eighties, nobody’s actually stopping. They’re just kind of rolling through, even if there are other people at the stop sign. And finally, in the last of these studies, people just went right through the stop sign regardless. So there we can see that’s a decline in measured behavior. It’s measured behavior following whether you follow the rules of the road.

I’ll give you another quick example of this. It’s actually quite fascinating. Over the last 40 or 50 years now, social scientists have been doing what’s called lost letter experiments. That’s a case in which the researcher drops addressed and stamped envelopes, sometimes with money in them, sometimes not, on the street. And they measure how many of those letters are actually returned.

So it’s a measure not of trust, but of trustworthiness. How on average, are the people in a given area, people, you know, walking by that lost letter, how many of them will return it? And we know that that turns out to be a very good measure of trustworthiness. But not only that, it tracks closely with other measures of what people say about trust in those areas. So … these studies have been done in national across countries. And I don’t remember the exact numbers now, but in Stockholm, roughly 75%, 80% of those letters are returned. And in Palermo, roughly 10% are returned.

And so you can use tests like that to try to get at what have been the trends in trustworthiness. And I’m trying to say we should rephrase our question. I think this is an important question. What’s going on here? But we should rephrase that as, Why could we have had this honesty recession?

CHAKRABARTI: I actually take your point. I agree. Let us rephrase it as a trustworthiness recession, because then that actually makes it an even more compelling question regarding American institutions. But I wanted to give Jack another chance here in this segment, Jack. What do you think about this idea of refocusing on trustworthiness as really the recession that we should be concerned about in America?

BEATTY: Well, you know, there’s something encouraging about it. It says that reform of institutions might lead to greater trust. In other words, by making the institutions more trustworthy, we would trust them more. And Bob, you talk about your dealing with President Clinton, and he was very concerned to make government work so that people would trust it more. And so, in other words, he said, let’s make government trustworthy and then people will trust it.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, we’ve heard from a lot of listeners about their loss of trust or their belief in the lack of trustworthiness, let me put it that way. In various institutions, including the media, for example, here’s Michael, who called us from Iowa.

MICHAEL: I have lost faith in the news media’s ability to instruct the public on matters of scientific fact. That trust could be reestablished with me and much of the public, I think, if the news media as a whole were able to distinguish between science and pseudoscience better than what it seems to be able to do.

CHAKRABARTI: And here’s Eduardo, who called us from Miami, Florida.

EDUARDO: I think Hollywood and all video media has an incredible amount of impact on this subject. Considering what a casting person does for a movie. They’re exactly looking for a person that has the physical characteristics that represent a certain mode of person. In other words, we’re being force fed or trained how to, or who to trust, and who not to trust.

CHAKRABARTI: And finally, Lisa from Rhode Island.

LISA: I would say very much so that I trust government less and I trust the media less, and even I trust NPR so much less. And primarily because there’s so much influence from corporate entities and from places like the Gates Foundation. And so I see a real difference in the reporting. I think that there’s just not the unbiased kind of reporting that there used to be, and it’s eroded my trust.

CHAKRABARTI: I want to thank all of those listeners for their calls, especially or including Lisa. Now, I will stand up for public radio’s reporting because yes, many of the stations do accept financial support from places like the Gates Foundation. But I can tell you that in our coverage, there is no influence in terms of direct influence on the journalism.

But I think the point here, and Robert Putnam, we’ll come back to you on this, is that there is this belief in the reduction of trustworthiness, which is let ringing loud and clear in what Lisa said there. I want to offer this as a potential framework for our exploration now, Bob. And that is it comes from something we heard a little earlier this week, that trustworthiness is  measured in a series of promises that have been kept.

And that comes from someone we had earlier this week now. And so basically, I think what Americans have been asking over the past 20, 30 years is that they feel like many promises to them have not been kept. Now, what I’d like to do is go back in time to the last major part of American history where the feelings were very, very similar and the realities were similar. Where would you point to in U.S. history that we should focus on?

PUTNAM: I think that’s the right question, because one of the things we do know is that there have been ups and downs in trust and trustworthiness over the decades, in particular at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, at the end of the 19th century, let’s say what’s sometimes called the Gilded Age. In the heat of the American Revolution, the circumstances were extremely similar. As my coauthor, Shaylyn Romney Garrett and I lay out at some length in the book The Upswing. The circumstances in America in let’s say, 1890, 1900 were astonishingly similar to the circumstances we face today.

There was a very high degree of economic inequality between, let’s say, the Upper East Side of New York and the Lower East Side of New York. Between the Rockefellers and the other folks who lived on the Upper East Side and the teeming masses who lived, you know, ten miles south on the Lower East Side. So that’s like today, a great huge gap, growing gap between rich and poor. It was a period of great political polarization. Politics had become tribal. People trusted other people and leaders of their own party and didn’t trust people across the aisle. It was a period of very low social capital, that’s my jargon for the connections among people.

Low trust, for example, and low trustworthiness and a period in which Americans were very much focused on, What’s in it for me? But then beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, what’s sometimes called the progressive era now, I mean, let’s call it Capital P progressive. It’s not necessarily left or right. The movement of the progressive era was actually very heterogeneous, but everybody in it agreed that America was in a pickle.

And in that period, a number of reforms were undertaken that set America on a course toward greater trustworthiness, towards greater equality, greater political, political, cross-party collaboration, a greater sense that we’re all in this together. Greater involvement in community organizations and connections to family and so on. And that long trend, beginning in roughly 1910, let’s say, ran all the way up until the late 1960s or early 1970s. So we had a really long run. That’s an example of America. People just like us, facing a problem, just like the problem we today faced and turning it around.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, let me get Jack in here. I do recall that you wrote an entire book about this particular age called The Age of Betrayal. And obviously, you’re extremely well versed in the following period that Bob Putnam is talking about from 1910 to 1970. So what would you say, Jack, are the particular things, economic labor reforms, political reform, even that led to what Bob is saying?

BEATTY: … You mentioned 1910, Bob. That was the last year of the southern disenfranchisement. Oklahoma disenfranchised Black citizens, and that exclusion of African Americans from the electorate lasted up until 1965. Now, Bob points out there was a long civil rights movement and there was tremendous progress by African Americans. All true. But as late as 1964, in Sunflower County, Mississippi, which was the home of James Eastland, he was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 13,000 Blacks were eligible to vote. Only 160 were registered.

Turned out that there were two weeks a month, two days a month that the registration office was open at the county courthouse. And when people would go there, the doors would be locked. So that was America. One condition, it seemed, of this movement, was Blacks are out of the electorate and half the country. The second condition is that in 1924, the United States reversed its open-door policy on immigration and greatly restricted immigration and changed its composition.

And in the thirties and forties, we had the lowest incidence of foreign-born people in the country in some decades. That changed in 1965, also when the Immigration Act was signed, which led, as we know, over decades, to the browning of a good deal of America. And the third factor condition was a war of immense solidarity, at least among white people. The Second World War, a galvanic moment of national coming together.

That helped fuel the upswing in terms of equality and social trust in the rest. But what do we have in the 1960s? We have another war, the Vietnam War, that drove Americans apart. And so, you know, what are the conditions that seem to have made possible the movement of Blacks out of the electorate, fewer immigrants, a war that unites all that went away in the 1960s. And we’re in a new world of division among people. And when you look to the future, there’s a very suggestive paper called More Diverse, Yet Less Tolerant. And these social scientists basically looked at, asked white people, what do you think about diversity?

And they gave their opinions and they said, what do you think now that we’re telling you that we’re going to be a majority minority nation in a few years? They became less tolerant. The more they knew about diversity, the less tolerant they became. And it led the authors to say the increasing diversity of the nation seems to promise an era of greater group hostility. So, you know, am I suggesting that if we stopped immigration, we put Blacks back in their place, we had a war that united us, everything would be fine? Not at all.

But we have to look at those outside factors and wonder. Why was it that ‘the we of me,’ to use the phrase from a Carson McCullers play, why can’t white Americans live with a multicultural society? Are they capable of that?

PUTNAM: Well, that’s a rich account of this period. And Jack is a master of this period. And I don’t want to take time to go through point by point, but I do want to say a couple of things. First of all, the war or the issue of wars. World War Two did have a short run effect on increasing solidarity. All the data shows that, and I argue that in this book, The Upswing.

But all these upturns that I’ve been talking about, increasing equality, increasing trust and so on, began to happen 30 years before World War Two. And since causes generally precede their effects, I think the big story is not World War Two created a boom in confidence. It did, but that was short lived. But the larger trend, the half century long trend began long before anybody knew there was going to be World War Two.

Indeed, long before there was even a World War One. On the more complicated issues, I certainly agree that apparently the upswing was simultaneous with the closure of our borders to immigrants in 1924 and with the exclusion of Blacks during the during the 1930s and forties and fifties and into the sixties. I do also have to add, however, two things to note. It’s not an accident that we opened the gates to increased immigration, massively increased immigration in 1964 at the peak of weakness.

That is to say it was when we were most, and you could say either we whites or we Americans were most open to diversity, because of this long, 50-, 60- or 70-year upswing. That’s when we opened our gasoline. We felt comfortable opening our gates. That’s when we felt morally obligated to open. And the same thing is true of the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement, not accidentally, occurs at the very peak of the broadening of the sense of ‘we’ in America.

So on the other hand, Jack is right. That looks like that. It took a long time for those changes in culture and changes in economics and politics to filter through into actual behavior. And there was a lag, a long lag between the changing culture of America and the changing behavior of Americans. That’s always true. I do want to close by saying, however, and this is part of the same message that I’m trying to convey, that social change takes time.

Jack raised this issue of diversity and intolerance. Jack may not know that actually, I wrote myself the first substantial article showing that the more diverse a community, the more diverse a neighborhood, the lower the levels of trust and trustworthiness and so on. So I can’t I’m not going to deny that. Indeed, I discovered it, I would say.

But that argument, and then many people have taken comfort from that, as many far-right people took comfort from this publication of a mine. But they didn’t read the whole article. Because what the article said was, that’s the short run effect of the diversity. It takes time to adapt to diversity. And the short run effect of diversity is to make people hunker down like a turtle. What I said then was that diversity brings out the turtle in all of us, not just whites, Blacks, everybody.

But that over the long run, a successful immigration society which we finds ways of dealing with diversity and becoming more trusting in the face of diversity. That’s the history of our country, Jack, repeatedly over the last two or 300 years, every time there’s been a burst of immigrants into America, there’s been a short run, oh, my God, what are we going to do with all these foreigners here?

And then over 20 or 30 years, we begin to intermarry, and we suddenly don’t notice those … people we called foreigners, but now they’re just Americans. That happened in the 20th century. And I’m confident is happening right now among young people in America.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Jack and Bob, we’re getting a lot of comments coming in here online. For example, Tim tells us on Facebook that, quote, ‘I think we need to acknowledge the damage to general societal and governmental trust inflicted by one party that has found so much success in false narratives and outright lies compounded by the megaphone of Fox and other right wing media outlets. Proof of such is simply provided by the fact that going into the midterms, 65% of Republican voters still believe that Biden stole the 2022 election.’ So Tim asks, ‘How can we have trust in society when public discourse becomes so polluted with nonsense?’

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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