In 2009, I wrote “Distrust, American Style,” a book in which I argued that loss of trust in our social institutions—and especially in our government—had diminished America’s levels of social capital and had significant negative consequences for our ability to function as a productive society.
Things haven’t improved since 2009. If anything, our levels of distrust have continued to grow, and for good reason.
A couple of days ago, major news outlets reported discovering a legal memorandum that had been generated during the George W. Bush administration, along with evidence that the administration had attempted to destroy all copies, for obvious reasons: The memorandum opined that the “enhanced interrogation” techniques being employed and defended by the administration were war crimes.
Whether one agrees with that assessment or with the considerably more accommodating (and widely shared) analysis by John Yoo, the former Justice Department official best known for authoring the “torture memos” justifying those same techniques, two things are clear: The White House knew its actions raised significant legal and constitutional issues, and it was prepared to ignore both those issues and the rule of law.
It would be comforting to conclude that such actions were confined to one rogue administration, or at least to the federal level, but history and evidence suggest otherwise; in fact, there has been a rash of disclosures of local-level governmental misconduct recently.
In Illinois, an investigation of the criminal justice system uncovered evidence that, among other improprieties, prosecutors had failed to turn over documents in their possession that proved a man convicted of double murder in 1992 could not possibly have committed the crime he was accused of—because he had been in police custody at the time.
Despite that, the police managed to get him to sign a confession. (It is estimated that some 25 percent of criminal confessions are extracted from people who are actually innocent of the crime to which they confess, a rather disturbing bit of data that doesn’t exactly operate to reassure us about the trustworthiness of our justice system.)
Here in Indiana, trust in the competence of state government has been shaken by “accounting errors” in the millions, and the persistent inability of the Family & Social Services Administration to protect vulnerable children.
Daily, it seems, the media bombard us with reports of nefarious doings: various governmental and corporate misdeeds, the proliferation of Super-Pacs willing and able to distort democratic processes, disclosures about the workings of shadowy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council.
All this has led to a pervasive belief that wealthy individuals are able to “game the system” in their favor—able to buy favorable tax treatment, able to escape regulation, able to evade the consequences of predatory behaviors, able to elect public officials who will do their bidding.
The result is a level of cynicism that undermines social cohesiveness and our ability to come together to address the issues that face us.
When people no longer trust their governing institutions, it becomes easy to sell them conspiracy theories. (If Obama gets another term, “they’ll” come for your guns!) It becomes easy to turn groups against one another. (Witness recent disclosures about the strategy by the National Organization for Marriage to generate antagonism between African-Americans and gays.)
We can’t rebuild social trust by wishing it back. We need a national “house cleaning” to ensure that our institutions are trustworthy, democratic and ethical.
When significant numbers of Americans don’t trust our common institutions—government, yes, but also the church, major-league sports, media outlets, businesses and financial institutions, none of which have exactly covered themselves with glory lately—we certainly aren’t going to trust one another.
And that’s a real problem.•
Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. Her column appears monthly. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at email@example.com. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.