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Ten Theses on Trust
The County Election, George Caleb Bingham, 1852

Ten Theses on Trust

David Blankenhorn offers a roadmap to rebuilding trust in American public and private life.

David Blankenhorn

Consensus has emerged that trust is eroding in America—in our institutions, our political parties, in ourselves. We need a compass to navigate this increasingly tricky trust terrain. We need a map to help us rebuild. Let me offer ten points of orientation.

1. Don’t despair—distrust can be good.

If you speak to me of forbearance with your boot on my neck, distrust is exactly what’s called for. More broadly, important social progress frequently requires conflict (think of the African-American civil rights movement), which usually involves some distrust. If distrust served no good or necessary purposes, we’d have much less of it. It fits with healthy skepticism and dissent.

2. Trust is the willingness to be vulnerable to another party.

We could also call trust “confidence in a projected assumption involving risk.” Or “the belief that others can be relied on in situations involving risk.” Or, as regards institutional trust, “the belief that those in authority aren’t biased against me or my group.” What’s common in these definitions is the idea that trust involves the possibility of being harmed. Trust requires you to be vulnerable.

3. Most of what we think is based on trust.

I personally believe that human-caused climate change is real and dangerous. Yet I have zero expertise in climatology and couldn’t conduct a serious scientific experiment if my life depended on it. I act on what I believe about climate only because I trust what many scientists say about it. The number of life’s truths you can personally verify is quite small. All the rest is based on who and whether you trust.

We’re haunted today by the fear that our political adversaries no longer argue about a country we both recognize. This civic vertigo doesn’t occur because “they” have suddenly gone crazy or will no longer admit facts. It occurs because almost no source of truth—no validator of reality—is still trusted by most Americans. The problem is not bad people. This is what occurs when good people in a failing system develop divergent realities based on who and what they trust.

4. Trust reduces the burden of choice to tolerable levels.

When Alfred North Whitehead said that civilization reduces the burden of choice, he might as well have said trust. Humans only live in groups, and if the members of those groups had to make all choices purely on their own, independent of any trusting relationships, they’d be overwhelmed. Trust is the indispensable aid to sanity that keeps our choice making from driving us mad.

5. Trust is a social reality.

Some researchers treat trust mainly as a personal psychological trait. But that can be too reductionist. As the scholars J. David Lewis and Andrew Weigert make clear, a fuller and more accurate approach is viewing trust as a social reality. Viewed this way, trust is inseparable from relationships and social environment.

When it comes to our institutions, African Americans and Latinos are less trusting than Whites. The poor are less trusting than the affluent. The less educated are less trusting than the highly educated. The White guy with a college degree and a big house is likely to have comparatively high levels of institutional trust. But the guy who cleans his swimming pool? Much less likely. And should any of that surprise us? When it comes to how much you trust others and society, how life and other people have treated you to date are highly predictive. Because trust is irreducibly social, it’s less about me than about us.

6. General trust grows from particular trust.

Does loving the person next to me come from loving the world? Actually, it usually works the other way around. Because I’ve first been loved into loving by particular people, I eventually learn that it’s both possible and necessary to extend my love to people in general, including strangers. It’s the same with understanding. The great Mississippi writer William Faulkner once said that to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. That’s how it works with trust as well. It begins close in and spreads from there.

7. When trust is lost, institutions fail.

As Francis Fukuyama points out in his book Trust, a thriving free economy depends decisively on economic trust. (“I believe you’ll honor this contract.”) Democratic government depends decisively on political trust. (“I trust our elections to be fair.”)

Can our American experiment in ordered liberty thrive if most Americans no longer believe that our elected officials generally try to do what’s best for the country, and that their fellow citizens can be counted on in a pinch? I fear that the answer is no. As trust goes, so go the most important institutions of a free society.

8. Trust is fragile.

Trust is easier to destroy than create. Whether we’re speaking of individuals or groups, we humans are soft-shelled creatures. Violations of trust wound us deeply, often causing lasting emotional pain. Building and maintaining trust typically requires persistent, demonstrated effort; but destroying trust can occur in an instant—with a lie or a trespass.

So many things can damage trust, including some things we couldn’t or wouldn’t want to change. Rapid social change reduces trust. So does diversity, even though in the long run diversity is likely a social good. As Fukuyama points out, higher levels of education and wider access to information also probably contribute to declining trust, as does the public’s growing perception of poor performance and lack of accountability in our institutions, which may in turn stem at least in part from higher and more exacting expectations.

American trust once benefited from a widely shared and celebrated public story of who we are as a people and what America stands for. No longer. Trust can also be harmed when social problems once largely denied or hidden from view—for example, sexual abuse—become publicly known and are addressed.

Millions of children grow up today separated from their fathers, and Judith Wallerstein and others have shown that a major consequence of family disruption is children’s loss of trust in their fathers. When you can’t or don’t trust the first important man in your life, trusting especially those in authority becomes less likely to occur. Distrust, like trust, begins close in and spreads from there.

Few occurrences destroy trust in our political institutions as quickly as public lying, something that seems to have increased in recent decades. Institutions that openly abandon professional standards as part of creating and profiting from polarization, such as most of today’s media, could hardly do more to destroy trust if they wanted to. These are hammer blows against soft wood.

9. Trust is more about care than knowledge.

Cognitive trust is when I believe that the information you’re conveying is accurate. Affective trust is when my confidence in what you’re conveying is based on my caring for you. Both are key aspects of trust. Each ideally underwrites the other. And each is especially important in certain contexts. (If I need from you the answer to a math problem, I’d likely lean on cognitive more than affective trust.)

Yet notwithstanding my prideful assumption that I (but not you!) am guided by reason and logic, a large and growing body of social research suggests that caring shapes knowing more than knowing shapes caring. If you’d like to trust me, the first thing to do is befriend me. Lincoln said: “If you would win a person to your cause, first convince them that you are their sincere friend.” Affection precedes verification and makes verification more likely.

10. Trust is an abundant good.

Trust is like the loaves and fish in the Bible story—under the right conditions, it increases abundantly. It’s the opposite of what economists call a scarce good, which would mean that the supply is finite and that the more I have, the less you have. Trust at its best is generative.

The most beautiful expression of this reality is trust as gift giving. As with the loaves and fish, trust becomes an exchange of gifts in the hope of abundance. This exchange sometimes aborts and is often painful and difficult, since it requires us to believe in (trust in) things unseen and unproven. After all, given what I believe or suspect about your harmful political ideas and alienating ways of talking, why would I trust you? Why should I?

The answer is that if I can take the risk and have the faith to give you my trust, without requiring reciprocity and without conclusive evidence of your trustworthiness, you are more likely both to return my trust and be worthy of my trust. In this sense a trust agenda resembles a love agenda, since the best way to increase trust in the world is to give it away freely.

We know that rebuilding trust is the essence of our work to depolarize America. But to date it’s been for many of us more a background assumption than a consciously developed topic of analysis and debate. I hope that can change. As we look to the future, I can’t think of a more important intellectual challenge. We need to create America’s trust agenda.

David Blankenhorn is president of Braver Angels, a citizens group working for less rancor and more goodwill in U.S. politics and society. Twitter: @blankenhorn3

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