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Why suspicion runs rampant

December 12, 2015

Sheila Suess KennedyWhom do you trust?

Increasingly, the American answer is “no one.” We can debate the reasons for our sour national mood and pervasive distrust of our institutions and fellow citizens, but the cynicism and skepticism are not debatable—the evidence is everywhere.

Convinced that Obama is the anti-Christ? Watch Fox News, visit right-wing websites and listen to talk radio for confirmation.

Positive that bankers and corporate interests are intentionally crushing the “little guy?” Subscribe to lefty blogs, read left-wing websites and respond to hysterical emails.

Political psychologists call this behavior “confirmation bias.” We used to call it “cherry picking”—the intellectually dishonest process of picking through information sources, from the Bible to the U.S. budget—looking for evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

The Internet has exponentially expanded our ability to live in a “filter bubble”—a reality of our own creation, where (in defiance of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous dictum) we can indeed choose our own “facts.”

And thanks to a media environment that no longer includes Walter Cronkite-like figures having widespread credibility, non-ideological Americans who just want to know what is happening no longer know what or whom to believe.

Demagoguery is one of the most dangerous consequences of this widespread skepticism. When citizens no longer share a reality, they are susceptible to messages confirming their worst fears and most pernicious biases—and human nature being what it is, there is no scarcity of opportunists, megalomaniacs and unhinged bigots prepared to sell us their particular snake oil.

So Donald Trump tells Americans their discomfort with immigrants is a rational reaction to Mexican “rapists” and the “thousands and thousands of Muslims who cheered when the twin towers came down.” Mike Pence and other governors prey on fears of terrorism by mischaracterizing the vetting process and trying to block the resettlement of Muslim refugees.

The willingness of high-profile political figures to make untrue, outrageous and frequently ridiculous allegations is undoubtedly one reason so many people think satirical articles posted to Facebook or other social media are real. (Gee—it sounded like something Sarah Palin would have said.)

This retreat into an “us versus them” world view isn’t confined to traditional bigotries based upon race, religion and sexual orientation. It is glaringly evident in our political life. The gridlock that has made Congress so dysfunctional is in large part an outgrowth of partisan distrust; ideas are not considered based upon their merits, but accepted or rejected based upon who proposed them, and both parties are guilty.

A few years ago, I wrote a book titled “Distrust, American Style” in which I explored the importance of social trust to self-government. Globalization and technology have created a complex environment in which no one person has the knowledge needed to independently evaluate regulatory and environmental policies. We have to rely on experts—and that means knowing which experts we can trust.

What is the reason for our current deficit of trust? Not to oversimplify, but fish rot from the head.

When citizens do not believe they can trust their government and other social institutions, they become suspicious of one another. When government, especially, no longer works—when authority figures from members of Congress to governors to mayors to police officers abuse their powers and ignore the common good—distrust infects every aspect of our communal lives.

Add in economic inequality and rapid social change, and you have a dangerously destabilized polity—a recipe for extremism, division and constant discord—and an invitation to blame it all on “those people.”•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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