News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.
Big Picture
Ray Massey/Getty Images

Americans lack faith in institutions and each other, according to new report

Every democracy depends on a certain level of trust among its citizens and in its key institutions of government, business and civil society. We clearly have work to do, according to new research.

More in Common, a nonprofit that works to end polarization, released "Two Stories of Distrust in America" on Monday. The report catalogues across-the-board distrust and identifies ways to restore faith in institutions and each other. With more than 10,000 people participating via surveys, long-term study and dialogue, it's a comprehensive view of why trust is missing with institutions and among people.

The report breaks the issue down into two parts: "an ideological 'us versus them' distrust and a 'social distrust' that tracks interactions and feelings of belonging, dignity, and equality."

The top-level ideological data shows a remarkable lack of faith in core institutions. Only 11 percent of Americans believe the federal government or corporations are honest (conservatives are slightly more positive about corporations). The national media scores better — 22 percent overall — with liberals and progressives sharing a much more positive opinion than moderates and conservatives.

There have been dramatic swings in Americans' confidence that the government will do what is right for the country. In March 2021, 50 percent said they are confident, up 11 points from June 2020. But that data point belies a huge partisan divide. Confidence among Republicans dropped 29 points while raising 50 points among Democrats. (There was virtually no movement among independents).

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

The More in Common survey also found that a lack of trust in other people has continued to steadily decline. Four in 10 Americans said "Most people can be trusted" but 61 percent said "You can't be too careful in dealing with people." The National Opinion Research Council has been asking whether most people can be trusted for decades, and positive responses haven't cracked 40 percent since the mid 1980s.

"Without a baseline of trust in key institutions and in each other, we cannot solve collective problems or advance changes that benefit all sectors of society," reads the report." In high-trust societies, people are able to organize more quickly, initiate action, and sacrifice for the common good. High trust societies have lower economic inequality and growing economies, lower rates of corruption, and a more civically engaged population."

There are also significant feelings of a lack of belonging across ideology, age and race. Overall, 34 percent of Americans say they do not feel a sense of belonging in any community.

Additional takeaways from the 50-page report include:

  • Disgust is more prevalent than anger, which is the path to dehumanization of each other.
  • Exposure to people different from ourselves, in settings where we share an overlapping identity is critical. For example, parents share an identity that is not based on ideology. Positive interactions on non-risky identities leads to more tolerance overall.
  • Participation in civic life increases our sense of belonging, which increases trust. Participation (or lack of) is both a cause and a cure for distrust.
  • The easiest place to start is local, in our neighborhoods and communities where we can see the impact of our involvement.
  • Communication from elected officials and leaders needs to be thorough, with clear acknowledgement of the impact when people participate. Let people know they've made a difference.

Building trust will be among the most important societal design challenges for the 21st century.

"Efforts from government leaders to promote bipartisanship and to restore Americans' confidence in the institutions of democracy should be complemented by strategies and programs for building social trust within and across communities, groups, and people," reads the report. "A comprehensive strategy to build trust would catalyze a virtuous cycle wherein efforts to reduce ideological and social distrust reinforce and accelerate one another."

© Issue One. All rights reserved.