Jonathan Gruber -

Jun 22, 2021

A Sobering Snapshot of Distrust in America

“Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”

—Sissela Bok

Trust is like oxygen in a democracy. It’s vital to the health of the entire system and all the discrete parts, its role at any given moment often goes unnoticed, and its absence leads to a range of dire outcomes.

In the United States, unfortunately, trust is in short supply and has been on the decline for years. That’s true not only of people’s trust in key institutions of government, business, and the media but also of trust in political life and in each other. This isn’t surprising, though it is disconcerting. “Falling trust in institutions is bad enough,” wrote David Brooks in an essay for The Atlantic last fall. “It’s when people lose faith in each other that societies really begin to fall apart.” A new report from our partner More In Common, Two Stories of Distrust in America, paints a bleak, nuanced picture of the state of trust in America. It also makes the case that rebuilding trust is essential to repairing our democracy.

As the title suggests, one of the intriguing contributions of the More In Common report is the two stories of distrust it reveals: ideological distrust and social distrust. The first kind, the authors explain, is an “ideological ‘us versus them’ distrust seen every day in headlines about partisan polarization and across social media.” The second kind, less talked about but no less significant, “is one connected more with experiences of belonging, dignity, and equality.” While ideological distrust is more a product of how people perceive our national politics and national media, social distrust is shaped by day-to-day interactions in neighborhoods and communities.

Given Einhorn Collaborative’s work to strengthen a culture of connection and belonging in America, I was especially drawn to the finding that levels of social trust and feelings of belonging go hand in hand. The faith we have in others is intertwined with whether we feel accepted and valued by those we’re in community with.

"The faith we have in others is intertwined with whether we feel accepted and valued by those we’re in community with."

—Jonathan Gruber, Einhorn Collaborative

It’s cause for alarm, then, that only 37 percent of Americans feel that “most people can be trusted” and that 34 percent say “there is no community [outside of friends and family] where they feel a strong sense of belonging.”

The report also explains how essential trust is to creating a bigger sense of “we” among people of diverse backgrounds, values, and views. “A sense of a shared fate,” the authors write, “is shown when citizens practice generalized trust, an open sort of trust that encompasses many others in society, even and especially people who one may consider as from the ‘out-group.’” They contrast this with a “particularized trust” in one’s in-group. “This narrow type of trust is linked to viewing novel or unfamiliar people or situations as threatening,” they explain. “People who engage in particularized trust are more pessimistic, have higher authoritarian tendencies, and are avoidant of others whom they perceive as being outside of their inner circle.”

More In Common – which pursues original research, communications, and on-the-ground initiatives in the U.S. and Europe focused on bridging divides and fostering unity – sliced the data based on the segments defined through their Hidden Tribes report in 2018. Notably, they find that for the most ideological progressives and conservatives, ideological trust and social trust track in opposite directions. “Although they may have intense distrust along ideological lines,” the report explains, “Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives indicate their personal settings are filled with strong feelings of interpersonal trust, community, and connection.” In other words, people can have thick relationships and a robust sense of belonging as well as deep distrust across divides and a reluctance to bridge them.

When it comes to race, there is significant variation in levels of social trust. For example, 70 percent of white Americans say they are treated with dignity in their local neighborhoods. That falls to 50 percent for Black Americans. 52 percent of white Americans agree with the statement, “Other Americans are either with me or against me.” That rises to 70 percent for Black Americans. As Brooks explains in his Atlantic essay, “Unsurprisingly, the groups with the lowest social trust in America are among the most marginalized. Trust, like much else, is unequally distributed across American society, and the inequality is getting worse… Black Americans,” he writes, “have been one of the most ill-treated groups in American history; their distrust is earned.”

The More In Common team – also part of the New Pluralists Field Builder community – includes a section at the end that names strategies policymakers and leaders could pursue to strengthen trust in America, with the caveat that trust is “one element in a complex and self-reinforcing causal network of psychological, historical, and structural forces.” In turn, there are no easy solutions but there are various ways to intervene in what is a complex system. Institutional trust, the authors assert, can be bolstered by increasing civic participation (especially at the local level), by demonstrating the integrity of government institutions, and by helping people feel more personally invested in community outcomes.

One way we can strengthen social trust is by fostering a sense of collective identity that transcends the negative perceptions people may have about each other’s views and motivations. Such shared identities can take shape in a range of everyday contexts: among people who are residents of the same town, fans of the same sports team, parents of kids in the same school. Another approach is to enable intergroup contact – opportunities for people to engage positively across groups – which anchors the work of many organizations in the pluralism and bridging field. The authors also call out the importance of addressing inequality, which “provides fertile ground for social distrust.” In the same essay, David Brooks made the case for reinvesting in organizations. “Personal trust can exist informally between two friends who rely on each other,” he wrote, “but social trust is built within organizations in which people are bound together to do joint work, in which they struggle together long enough for trust to gradually develop, in which they develop shared understandings of what is expected of each other.”

There’s no shortage of challenges to address as the country emerges from the pandemic, pieces together an economic recovery, and contends with a stubbornly toxic political climate. This new report from More In Common makes clear that the slow, hard work of building trust must be atop our shared agenda for getting the country back on track.

Download the report here.

Jon Gruber leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Building strategy. Learn more about our work in Building and more about Jon. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jon’s blog posts.