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Rebuilding trust, one conversation at a time

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Meyers is executive editor of The Fulcrum.

The ever-growing democracy reform movement is built around the idea that the American democracy is in trouble because the system is broken. Those with money have an outsized influence on politics. Ballot access is far from equal. Politicians get to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.

That's why, in 2019, I helped launch The Fulcrum, a nonprofit news platform dedicated to coverage of efforts to fix the system. As my then boss, Issue One's Nick Penniman, preaches, government's policy dysfunction cannot be addressed until the political dysfunction is first resolved.

While I remain committed to the mission of informing more Americans about efforts to fix the system, there's a parallel and equally important issue to be addressed: the lack of civility in our collective discourse.

Anyone scrolling through Twitter or Facebook is bound to repeatedly land upon nasty exchanges about Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Unfortunately, the dialogue is rarely a debate over ideas, but rather is full of nasty name-calling, sexism, bigotry and other forms of hate.

And it's not just on social media. Americans have a profound lack of trust in one another. Last summer, the nonprofit More in Common asked Americans whether "most people can be trusted." Only 39 percent said yes while a horrifying 61 percent said "you can't be too careful in dealing with people."

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In fact, we can't even blame social media for making distrust more prevalent — just louder. The More in Common report cites data from the nonpartisan research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, which found this lack of trust to be a long-term problem. NORC's historic data shows the last time more than 40 percent of Americans said most people can be trusted was ... the mid-1980s.

And while the Pew Research Center has found that Americans generally trust one another to do the right thing in many situations, that trust does not extend to political decisions. At the end of 2018, just as the United States was gearing up for a second Trump campaign, Pew learned that only 43 percent of Americans were confident that others would cast informed votes and 42 percent were confident people could have a civil conversation with someone who has different political beliefs.

And that's why I'm supporting America Talks, a much-needed effort to foster civil dialogue — not by regulating social media or limiting speech, but by encouraging individual Americans to engage in one-on-one conversations. It's important we all recognize that just because someone has different beliefs, they aren't evil or unpatriotic.

Not only do we need to get people talking, we need to create some optimism that things can get better. That same More in Common study found that only 51 percent of Americans believe it's possible "for the country to come together in 2021" and just 39 percent say it's likely. While Democrats are more positive (68 percent possible, 52 percent likely), independents and Republicans are far more pessimistic (43 percent and 37 percent, respectively, said it's possible).

(Interestingly, racial minorities are more optimistic than white Americans: 63 percent of Black respondents said unity is possible in 2021, along with 58 percent of Hispanic people and 55 percent of Asian people. But only 47 percent of white people said so.)

We need to apply Isaac Newtons' first law of motion: An object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by a stronger force. Our citizenry is only going to become more divided, more untrusting unless something stops that trend. America Talks could be that something.

There's no institutional fix to the pervasive lack of trust in the United States. But America Talks can help us start fixing things, one conversation at a time.

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Podcast: Why conspiracy theories thrive in both democracies and autocracies

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Your Take:  The Price of Freedom

Your Take: The Price of Freedom

Our question about the price of freedom received a light response. We asked:

What price have you, your friends or your family paid for the freedom we enjoy? And what price would you willingly pay?

It was a question born out of the horror of images from Ukraine. We hope that the news about the Jan. 6 commission and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination was so riveting that this question was overlooked. We considered another possibility that the images were so traumatic, that our readers didn’t want to consider the question for themselves. We saw the price Ukrainians paid.

One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

Personally, my price includes service to our nation, too. The price I paid was the loss of my former life, which included a husband, a home and a seemingly secure job to enter the political fray with a message of partisan healing and hope for the future. This work isn’t risking my life, but it’s the price I’ve paid.

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Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

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