Think Nationally, Act Locally

Building social trust at the community level could fix our toxic national politics

Deep divisions in American society are well documented, and none more pronounced than in the realm of partisan politics. Talk of national healing and working together from President Joe Biden and other leaders is necessary and critical for future success. But better political discourse alone is insufficient for solving our deeper challenges, particularly given the current polarization of the two major political parties and the inescapable filters of partisan and social media.

To address our national maladies, we first need to pull back from politics altogether to examine the root of many of our problems: Americans increasingly don’t trust one another, or their government, and consequently lack the impulse and dedication to act collectively for the betterment of everyone. Until and unless some modicum of social trust is restored among people, our national politics and institutions will not succeed in overcoming the divisions that undermine action to strengthen the country overall. 

In order to help repair social trust, Americans must be willing to step out of the realm of national politics and focus more as citizens on interpersonal and community-led actions at the local level.

Brief background on social trust

In the fields of political science and sociology, social trust is typically measured through survey questions in studies such as the General Social Survey and World Values Survey that look at people’s self-reported belief in the honesty and integrity of others. Responses to questions like these are then combined into indices of low, medium, and high social trust to explore patterns among groups: 

“Generally speaking, would you say most people can be trusted or most people can’t be trusted?”

“Do you think most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance or would try to be fair no matter what?

“Would you say most of the time people try to help others or just look out for themselves?”

The basic trend across these surveys shows declining social trust over a forty year period, which has become more pronounced in recent years with significant generational differences also emerging—meaning that older Silent Generation and Baby Boomer Americans hold higher levels of social trust than do Millennials and Generation Z Americans. Although more than one-third of adults overall were classified as low social trust in Pew’s 2019 report on the subject, 46 percent of those ages 18-29 were found to be low social trust compared to less than one fifth of those 65 or older. As seen in this chart, low social trust is more prevalent among racial and ethnic minority groups, and among those with lower levels of education and income.

Pew also found that more than 7 in 10 adults believe that Americans today are less confident in each other than they were 20 years ago. Interestingly, Americans attribute this declining confidence in one another mainly to personal and societal ills—e.g. “people are more isolated”; “people are lazy or greedy”; “rising crime”; “racism”; or “decline in religion and values”—rather than to problems with government, the media, or political parties and leaders. 

The consequences of declining trust are acute. As seen in this chart from the same report, people with low social trust are far less likely than those with higher trust to think that their fellow citizens will follow general social norms or accept the results of elections—a real life situation in 2020 as many of Donald Trump’s supporters refused to accept the election of Joe Biden based on false accusations of fraud, thus confirming the fears of those with low social trust and reinforcing the cycle of distrust.

So, what does all this mean for American politics and how we might move forward?  

If people increasingly don’t believe that their fellow citizens will abide by basic rules and norms in society—or accept the results of free and fair elections and refrain from violence—the incentive to support one another and offer a helping hand through government or other institutions will diminish as people conclude that other people will just game the system, take advantage of them, or worse, cause them direct harm.

Thus, when the need for economic and social assistance may arise from events such as the current pandemic crisis, the public willingness to support necessary steps to address these problems—and sustain these efforts over time—may erode and constrain policy solutions to get the country back on track.

Without more social trust, national renewal will be difficult.

It’s not all hopeless, however. As conflict resolution research shows, the key to overcoming intractable divisions between people based on low social trust lies in non-political, local actions that bring people together. Anne Applebaum summarizes this research well in the current context of how to deal with the aftermath of the assault on the U.S. Capitol, arguing to avoid political talk and instead pursue local actions that put people to work on a common task:

Here’s another idea: Drop the argument and change the subject. That’s the counterintuitive advice you will hear from people who have studied Northern Ireland before the 1998 peace deal, or Liberia, or South Africa, or Timor-Leste—countries where political opponents have seen each other as not just wrong, but evil; countries where people are genuinely frightened when the other side takes power; countries where not all arguments can be solved and not all differences can be bridged. In the years before and after the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, for example, many “peacebuilding” projects did not try to make Catholics and Protestants hold civilized debates about politics, or talk about politics at all. Instead, they built community centers, put up Christmas lights, and organized job training for young people.

This was not accidental. The literature in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict prevention overflows with words such as local and community-based and economic regeneration. It’s built on the idea that people should do something constructive—something that benefits everybody, lessens inequality, and makes people work alongside people they hate. That doesn’t mean they will then get to like one another, just that they are less likely to kill one another on the following day.

Although these examples involve severe cases of frayed social trust in sectarian conflicts, the advice still holds: If Americans want to fix their national problems, they first need to drop politics, get off social media, turn of cable news, and start working together locally to build new bonds with one another.