Sunday, March 5, 2017
I've been thinking about the challenges presented by Americans' diminishing trust in institutions - a trend that has been accelerated by our President's troubling brand of conspiracy-fueled populist narcissism. As The Economist observed in December, Trump succeeded as a candidate by "systematically undermining trust in any figure or institution that seemed to stand in his way," and as President, his best chance for political survival is to keep fomenting cynicism on a "destructive mission to make America less like Sweden and more like Sicily."
But the decline of trust goes much deeper than Trump's rise. Bill Bishop makes this point in today's Washington Post, arguing that there isn't much that can be done to reverse course:
Everything about modern life works against community and trust. Globalization and urbanization put people in touch with the different and the novel. Our economy rewards initiative over conformity, so that the weight of convention and tradition doesn’t squelch the latest gizmo from coming to the attention of the next Bill Gates. Whereas parents in the 1920s said it was most important for their children to be obedient, that quality has declined in importance, replaced by a desire for independence and autonomy. Widespread education gives people the tools to make up their own minds. And technology offers everyone the chance to be one’s own reporter, broadcaster and commentator.
We have become, in Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s description, “artists of our own lives,” ignoring authorities and booting traditions while turning power over to the self. The shift in outlook has been all-encompassing. It has changed the purpose of marriage (once a practical arrangement, now a means of personal fulfillment). It has altered the relationship between citizens and the state (an all-volunteer fighting force replacing the military draft). It has transformed the understanding of art (craftsmanship and assessment are out; free-range creativity and self-promotion are in). It has even inverted the orders of humanity and divinity (instead of obeying a god, now we choose one).
Like my MoJ colleagues and other advocates of Catholic social teaching, my reflex is to jump in and supplement Bishop's gloomy analysis with a reference to civil society. My own work in the area has been premised, at least in part, on civil society's importance as a wellspring of the type of trust on which our political community depends. But what if we're wrong?
Calvin College prof Kevn den Dulk offers a provocative essay in the current issue of Comment in which he argues that we cannot assume "that political trust will flow inevitably out of the ordinary work of churches and soccer leagues." He explains:
[T]he empirical evidence that social trust breeds trust in government is largely non-existent. Some studies even suggest the influence might flow more clearly in the other direction: Political trust—confidence in the reliability, openness, responsiveness, and fairness of government— often acts as a precondition for social trust, not the other way around.
The revival of political trust is a separate challenge from the revival of civil society, in his account. So what does Catholic social teaching have to offer as a path forward for restoring trust among citizens as citizens? What do we as Catholic legal theorists have to offer?