The decline of trust in the USA

Bill Bishop attempts to address it, in the Washington Post, of all places.

The easiest sell of President Trump’s life is that a “corrupt” media produces “fake news.” After all, fewer than 2 in 10 Americans have “a lot” of trust in news organizations, the Pew Research Center has found, and we live in a “Matrix”-infused “conspiracy culture,” according to social scientists, where one is thought to be impossibly simple to not understand that the world is ruled by collusion and machination.

Trump has helped make trust a big deal for media types, and they are now searching for ways to regain the faith of their readers. To combat the “fake news” charge, the New York Times, for example, is running full-page ads and even bought a television spot during the Oscars declaring that “the truth is more important now than ever.” For some, the problem is that journalists have allowed too much of their personalities to creep into their work. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor David Shribman prescribes “less analysis and more reporting, less personality and more facts.” For others, there’s a need to demonstrate that journalists are not faceless elites but real people. Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank wrote of his newsroom colleagues: “They hail from all corners of this country, from farms and small towns, the children of immigrants and factory workers, preachers and teachers.” But even local papers, the ones most closely connected to their readers, are struggling to defend their integrity. One editor of a rural California paper accepted an op-ed about the danger of “fake news” in an attempt to instill some faith among the anti-press crowd.

You can hear similarly fretful discussions in dozens of other professions. The president has maligned politicians, scientists, judges, teachers, labor union leaders and intelligence officials, among others. “Donald Trump’s most damaging legacy may be a lower-trust America,” the Economist’s Lexington column predicted. Trust in American institutions, however, has been in decline for some time. Trump is merely feeding on that sentiment.

The leaders of once-powerful institutions are desperate to resurrect the faith of the people they serve. They act like they have misplaced a credit card and must find the number so that a replacement can be ordered and then FedEx-ed, if possible overnight.

But that delivery truck is never coming. The decline in trust isn’t because of what the press (or politicians or scientists) did or didn’t do. Americans didn’t lose their trust because of some particular event or scandal. And trust can’t be regained with a new app or even an outbreak of competence. To believe so is to misunderstand what was lost.

Well, I certainly think the behavior of the media, the political class, and the university professors has contributed to the decline in trust.  However, look at how the USA is more heterogenous and more US residents now possess national backgrounds from historically low-trust peoples.  Thanks to Robert Putnam, there is now an understanding that a more diverse population is a lower trust one due to inter-group dissimilarities.

But I haven’t seen anyone connect the fact that low-trust immigrants tend to bring their lack of trust with them to these observations of declining trust, even though the demographic math would indicate that it is likely an additional contributor.