In fact, you could argue that we see all around us the results of our trust deficit. Government dysfunction, an economy performing below its potential, public officials’ scandals and misdeeds, trusted institutions’ willingness to skirt the law and standards of good conduct, our social safety net under attack because people mistrust recipients — all of these speak to a society struggling as trust weakens.
Yet here’s a question. Do the polls match your experience? In my case, they do not. Trust still figures in my dealings with institutions and individuals, most of whom are good people trying to live a decent life and to be helpful to others. They deal with one another honorably and with care. I’m convinced this is because, no matter what the polls say at the moment, the habits instilled by parents, schools and a vast number of public and private institutions do not just disappear.
These habits include the experience of grappling with the challenges representative democracy throws at us — and they serve as a reminder we need trust in one another to make our national experiment in representative government work.
As idealistic or even naive as this may sound, we need to work toward more trust among our people and between people and their government. Some new laws might help, but the challenge is more basic than law can address. Higher standards of conduct at all levels of American life must become the norm. Trust may have weakened, but most of us do not see or experience a corrupt America. Even as we have become a larger, more diverse nation, a sense of community remains crucially important to make this country safe and secure for ourselves and our children.
We cannot take for granted our success at self-government over the centuries: The only invisible hand guiding and preserving our institutions is our collective will.