Trust and a Shared Reality

Claudia Neuhauser and Brian Herman

The National Intelligence Council warned in the recent Global Trends 2040 report that societies will need to adapt to deal with global challenges, “including climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions.” In the U.S., these challenges come on top of societal challenges, foremost systemic racism, health disparities, poverty, food insecurity, and lack of affordable housing and transportation.

Not every society will successfully navigate the challenges. The National Intelligence Council paints a mostly dire picture of the future in the Global Trends 2040 report, including a world adrift: “The international system is directionless, chaotic, and volatile as international rules and institutions are largely ignored. OECD countries are plagued by slower economic growth, widening societal divisions, and political paralysis. China is taking advantage of the West’s troubles to expand its international influence. Many global challenges are unaddressed.”

A “world adrift” need not be the scenario in 2040. The report leaves open the possibility of a “renaissance of democracies […] led by the United States and its allies” where “[r]apid technological advancements fostered by public-private partnerships in the United States and other democratic societies are transforming the global economy, raising incomes, and improving the quality of life for millions around the globe.” But this will not happen unless states “can build societal consensus and trust toward collective action on adaptation and harness the relative expertise, capabilities, and relationships of nonstate actors to complement state capacity.” 

“[S]ocietal consensus and trust toward collective action” are increasingly unlikely in the United States.  The U.S. population cannot even agree on facts, never mind solving societal challenges. There is no shared reality, and the increasing polarization will more likely tear our democracy apart than letting the United States be recognized as a leader of the free world and realize the “renaissance of democracies.”

No shared reality

In an October 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 77% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats said “that voters in both parties not only disagree over plans and policies but also cannot agree on the basic facts.” News and social media played a significant factor in this partisan divide.

News media used to deliver a shared reality. Walter Conkrite is often mentioned in this context. He delivered the news for decades (1937-1981). He was referred to as “the most trusted man in America.” People of all walks of life believed what he reported. He left newscasting forty years ago, in 1981, around the time when the news media consolidated into a few big media companies, “placing more and more journalism properties inside giant companies that had little interest in news,” according to Christopher B. Daly. The mergers resulted in fewer and fewer companies, and, as Daly pointed out, led to “the ethical quandary known as conflict of interest. For decades, journalists sought to be independent so that readers and viewers could trust that they were getting the straight dope—about government, about business, even about sports. […] But inside conglomerates, no news operation could be even close to independent.”

Instead of independent news, the media reported stories that attracted viewers. The size of the audience became more important than the news that was reported, and instead of reporting facts, the media relied on opinions that were tailored to an increasingly partisan audience. With social media into the mix, it is now easy to find one’s echo chambers with their own reality and with little hope for a shared reality and societal consensus.

Declining trust

According to the Pew Research Center, in the United States, trust in the federal government declined from 75% more than 60 years ago to 20% today, with the exception of a temporary increase following the events of 9/11 in 2001, where the country rallied together. 

Even when trust in a group is stable, such as trust in the scientific community, we see troubling signs. According to the Pew Research Center, throughout the past 45 years, about 40% of Americans have had a great deal of confidence in the scientific community. As recent as November 2020, a Pew Survey showed that this figure was at 39%, and if we add those who have a fair amount of confidence in scientists, this figure increases to 84%. However, hidden behind this overall level of confidence is the increasing gap between Democrats and Republicans, who had a great deal of confidence in scientists. This gap grew from 11% in 2016 to 16% in January 2019 and then jumped to 33% in November 2020 when only 22% of Republicans but 55% of Democrats had a great deal of confidence in scientists. 

The partisan gap of trust in the scientific community is particularly troublesome as the government relies on this community for expert advice. The current pandemic made this all too clear. Instead of uniting the country against an invisible enemy, the pandemic deeply divided the country, and whether or not to follow public health measures, such as wearing face coverings or getting vaccinated, has become a political battleground. 

Rebuilding trust and a shared reality

So how do we rebuild trust in our government and other entities that will be required for us to address the challenges outlined in the Global Trends 2040 report? 

It starts with each of us: Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg observed in his recent book Trust that “central to our chances of building greater trust in our country”[i] is building a sense of belonging and the need for people to build “points of overlap.” However, with the rise of “online communities tying us more closely than ever to those more like us, we have begun to sort our politics more reliably according to these affinities—regional, socioeconomic, racial, religious […]. Circles of belonging that once were overlapping have become increasingly concentric.”[ii]

To build points of overlap, each of us will need to have difficult conversations that do not blame but seek to understand. “Show[ing} concern for others” is critical, as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama observed in a tweet: “To earn trust, money and power aren’t enough; you have to show some concern for others. You can’t buy trust in the supermarket.” 

We cannot do it without our elected officials: Too many elected officials have shown a disregard for democracy in the past legislative session by introducing hundreds of bills aimed at restricting voting rights, restricting access to healthcare for transgender youth, whitewashing U.S. history, and setting up future elections for manipulation. These bills further divide our country without solving any of the pressing global challenges the National Intelligence Council singled out.

Our elected officials could learn something from scientists who engage in human subjects research. In 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act that required institutions to establish Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to oversee human subjects research. The legislation was in response to the Tuskegee study that came to light in 1972 in a New York Times article. This cruel experiment started in 1932 to “observe the natural history of untreated syphilis in African American populations. The subjects were not informed that they were part of a study, and treatment that became available in the 1950s was withheld from them to continue the research. 

When the Tuskegee experiment came to light, the public demanded strict controls to ensure that researchers would abide by the highest ethical standards. Today, the public should demand the highest ethical standards of elected officials and self-appointed influencers. Without a commitment to ethical practice, it is difficult to see how we can overcome the political division in our society. 

It takes a network to find and implement solutions: Translating scientific knowledge into public policy is difficult enough. Just read the book by Steven Johnson, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, summarized in the New York Times Magazine. The book is built on the idea of the “network narrative” that “emphasizes roles beyond that of the original discoverer in making a new idea valuable to the general public.” The book is full of examples that illustrate that “[a]n idea on its own is insufficiently powerful to transform society. Many great ideas die out before they can have a wider effect because they lack other key figures in the network: figures that amplify or advocate or circulate or fund the original breakthrough.” (P. 48, Kindle Edition)

Unless we engage in dispassionate discourse on how to solve our societal problems, we will remain mired in controversy, with partisan fights eating up valuable time. We saw this daily when public officials desperately tried to get the pandemic under control only to see their efforts thwarted by an administration unwilling to accept facts but more than willing to peddle ineffective treatments, like hydroxychloroquine. A confused public resorted to trusting sources that aligned with their personal and political beliefs: A fertile ground for conspiracy theories that divided the country along partisan lines and continues to contribute to vaccine hesitancy and an unwillingness to follow simple hygiene measures that have proven effective to keep the number of new infections low. 

If we continue to operate in this partisan manner instead of identifying effective solutions and working together on their implementation, we may soon find ourselves in “a world adrift” where “OECD countries are plagued by slower economic growth, widening societal divisions, and political paralysis.,” and where “[m]any global challenges are unaddressed.”

[i] Buttigieg, Pete. Trust: America’s Best Chance (p. 145). Liveright. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Buttigieg, Pete. Trust: America’s Best Chance (pp. 146-147). Liveright. Kindle Edition.

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