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Rebuilding trust, one conversation at a time

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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