Trust in America

An article from the Economist examines the political polarisation in the United States. It notes “The network maps shown here look at the degree to which senators vote the same way. Each node is a senator. Links represent instances when senators have voted similarly on substantive legislation on at least 100 occasions during the same congressional session. Their placement is determined algorithmically, based on their co-operation with other legislators—which has the effect of pushing more bipartisan ones to the centre.

In a related article from the same issue examines the consequences that these deepening political divergence can have, and is having on American society.

 

“Grim findings have been coming thick and fast. Most Americans no longer see President Barack Obama as honest. Half think that he “knowingly lied” to pass his Obamacare health law. Fewer than one in five trust the government in Washington to do what is right all or most of the time. Confidence in Congress has fallen to record lows: in America, as in Italy and Greece, just one in ten voters expresses trust or confidence in the national parliament. Frankly straining credulity, a mammoth, 107-country poll by Transparency International, a corruption monitor, this summer found Americans more likely than Italians to say that they feel that the police, business and the media are all ‘corrupt or extremely corrupt'”.

Worryingly the piece reports that “Americans are also turning on one another. Since 1972 the Chicago-based General Social Survey (GSS) has been asking whether most people can be trusted, or whether ‘you can’t be too careful’ in daily life. Four decades ago Americans were evenly split. Now almost two-thirds say others cannot be trusted, a record high. Recently the Associated Press sought to add context to the GSS data, asking Americans if they placed much trust in folk they met away from home, or in the workers who swiped their payment cards when out shopping. Most said no. The press is full of headlines about an American crisis of trust. That is too hasty. Lexington spent years in Asia and Europe reporting from countries cursed by official corruption and low trust among strangers. America is not that sort of society”.

While this latter point is true the danger is that it will become a self fulfilling prophecy. America’s obsession with the free market on the one hand has made it competitive and wealthy, but the negative effects of this are now being felt. Unless a more communitarian approach is taken social decay will continue. The consequences of this over time would be a less competitive America but the benefits would outweigh any negatives in the long term.

He goes on to cite China, “In genuinely low-trust societies, suspicion blights lives and hobbles economies. In China, even successful urbanites distrust business and government, worrying constantly about the food they buy and the air they breathe. Yet those same successful Chinese have little confidence in the poor. Chinese friends used to urge Lexington never to play Good Samaritan at an accident scene, insisting that anyone rich who stopped to help would be blamed for the victim’s injuries and pursued for compensation”.

He goes on to argue correctly, “It is true that America faces grave problems. Congress has had an unproductive year: shutting down the federal government was a notable low point. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) confessed to subjecting Tea Party and other political groups to special scrutiny, enraging conservatives. But to put such antics in perspective, this year Italy’s richest media tycoon and its ex-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was convicted of tax fraud, of paying an underage prostitute and abuse of power. In genuinely low-trust countries, tax evasion comes naturally: when those at the top cheat, only dupes follow the rules. But America shows few signs of surging tax evasion. The most recent IRS “tax gap” estimates found no significant decline in the proportion of taxes paid voluntarily and on time”.

Again this point is correct but the reason that tax evasion rates are so low is that those at the highest income pay almost no tax at all with Mitt Romney confessing he paid 7% in income tax.

He ends the piece, “None of this justifies complacency. Americans are dangerously angry. But when they voice Italian levels of distrust for authorities, or sweepingly accuse fellow-citizens of being crooks, they are not describing reality. Here is a theory: Americans are instead revealing how deeply they are divided. Dig into headlines about “half of all Americans” thinking this or that, and large partisan or demographic divides lurk. Take that poll finding that half of voters think Mr Obama lied to pass his health plan. Look more closely, and eight in ten Republicans think he fibbed, but fewer than one in four Democrats. As for headline GSS numbers about overall trust between Americans, they conceal a big race gap: for decades around 80% of black Americans have consistently said that most people cannot be trusted. The bulk of the recent decline involves whites becoming less trusting, says Tom Smith, the survey’s director. Explaining that decline is a complex business, but over the same period society has become more impersonal and more economically unequal. Robert Putnam of Harvard University, a pioneer in the study of “social capital”, argues that Americans’ trust in one another has been declining steadily since the “golden” aftermath of the second world war, when civic activity and a sense of community among neighbours were at a peak. Trust in institutions has risen and fallen over that same post-war period in line with external events, plunging after the Watergate scandal, for instance, and during recessions. Yet something new seems to be happening. Anti-government cynicism is feeding on gulfs in society”.

He concludes the article, “Consider the crisis around Obamacare. Forget fussing about its useless website: websites can be fixed. The president’s headache is that voters see his plan as welfare for the poor rather than a better way of delivering medical care. That is exposing ugly divisions. Most starkly, a majority of whites think the law will make life worse for them, a National Journalpoll found, while most non-whites believe it will help people like them. That in turn tallies with a big change over the previous 15 years: a collapse in support among conservatives for government safety nets. This is America’s real problem with trust. The country faces a crisis of mutual resentment, masquerading as a general collapse in national morale. Sharply-delineated voter blocs are alarmingly willing to believe that rival groups are up to no good or taking more than their fair share. Polls describing America as a hell-hole of corruption are not to be taken literally. They are a warning. America is not a low-trust society. But it risks becoming one”.

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2 Responses to “Trust in America”

  1. Order and Tradition Says:

    […] the figures for Congress, which are now in the single digits. This has a great deal to do with the deepening paralysis of lawmakers, who increasingly seem more intent on partisan point scoring than on getting things […]

  2. The GOP and Trump | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] the article makes the point that “Republicans of all stripes agree that the 2016 campaign is unfolding in an angry country. They give credit to Mr Trump for tapping into a mood of grievance, and suggest that a clever […]

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