The U.S. is the only established democracy where the level of social trust is falling instead of rising. Our political leaders can help turn the tide.
By Kevin Vallier. He is a professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University and has written a book called Trust in a Polarized Age. Excerpts:
"Strikingly, the U.S. is the only established democracy to see a major decline in social trust. In other nations the trend was in the opposite direction. From 1998 to 2014, social trust increased in Sweden from 56.5% to 67%, in Australia from 40% to 54%, and in Germany from 32% to 42%. Meanwhile, the U.S. is becoming more like Brazil, where trust is around 5%. What makes America unique?
Social science research has found that three important factors behind a country’s level of social trust are corruption, ethnic segregation and economic inequality. Each of these plays some role in the U.S., yet none seems to fully explain our loss of trust.
The large difference in social trust between Sweden and Brazil correlates with their levels of corruption: On the World Bank ranking of countries’ effectiveness at controlling corruption, Sweden is near the top in the 98th percentile, while Brazil is in the 42nd. The U.S. is in between, in the 84th percentile. But that ranking didn’t change much between 1996, when measurement began, and 2016, even as social trust in the U.S. declined.
International data also show that increasing ethnic diversity can lower social trust. In fact, some research suggests that the negative relationship between diversity and trust is stronger in the U.S. than in almost any other country.
But as trust theorists have dug deeper, they’ve found that this negative effect is largely correlated not with diversity itself but with segregation. When ethnic groups are concentrated in small geographical areas and have little contact with one another, distrust is high; with greater contact, the effect shrinks. And while ethnic diversity has increased in the U.S. considerably since 1980—around a 50% increase as measured by the National Equity Atlas Diversity Index—ethnic segregation has decreased somewhat.
Social trust has also been found to correlate strongly with economic inequality in over 100 countries, leading many trust theorists to conclude that increasing inequality lowers social trust. Among rich nations, the U.S. has seen the greatest increase in inequality in recent decades. In 1980, the top 1% of the population took home 10.9% of total pretax income; that share increased to 14.4% in 1989, 17.5% in 1999 and 19.6% in 2007.
This rising inequality likely contributed to the decline of social trust over the same period. But 2007 marked the peak of inequality in the U.S. The next year it dropped due to the financial crisis, and it has not exceeded 2007 levels since; yet social trust continues to decline. This may be because the perception of inequality has increased even as the actual level of inequality remained high and stable.
One confounding factor in the trust-inequality connection is the role played by the welfare state in redistributing income. Countries with large welfare states usually have less inequality, which might suggest that redistribution increases trust by lowering inequality. However, trust seems correlated best with “pre-fiscal” inequality, the level that exists before taxes and transfers. State redistribution that decreases economic inequality has no effect on trust, even when the redistributive effect is quite large.
In fact, low trust may be more of a cause of inequality than an effect, since research has found that trusting societies prefer welfare state policies. In Sweden, which has one of the lowest post-fiscal levels of inequality in the world, there is much greater support for welfare policies than in the U.S. Arguably, that’s because Americans are far more likely than Swedes to think that recipients of economic transfers don’t deserve them or will misuse them."
"Recent American history bears out that idea. The beginning of our current political polarization is often dated to 1968, when the Republican Party became nationally competitive through Southern realignment. In that year, according to the American National Election Survey, 56% of Americans believed most people can be trusted; in 2018, after a half-century of increasing partisan division, only 31.5% did.
Growing up under polarized political institutions may lead young people to generalize from partisan distrust to social distrust. Americans are sorting themselves into social silos, seldom interacting with unlike-minded others, leading to less moderation and more radicalization. This may be due in part to social media, though recent research on the effect of social media has reached mixed conclusions on this question. But the effect is clear: In 2017, around 70% of Democrats said that Donald Trump voters couldn't be trusted, and around 70% of Republicans said the same of Hillary Clinton voters."