The diminution of faith and trust in modern American democracy

The bonding values of faith and trust, based historically in the evolution of family, community, ethics, and law in Western culture, appear to be declining.

Signs of such a decline have been noted in the politics of several nations in Western Europe.

And Donald J. Trump has become the 45th president of the nation of John Adams, and Lincoln, and FDR, and Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. And “gridlock” in the nation’s capital has become “the norm.”

“How Stable are Democracies?” is the question asked by Armand Taub, a German Jew, writing as the New York Times’ “Interpreter” in November of 2016. His answer to the question: “Warning Signs are Flashing.”

Taub focuses on political movements to the far right in Australia, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the U.S. His article in the Times, based in a study since 2005 of liberal nations in Western Europe in conjunction with an Australian political scientist named Roberto Stefan Foa, was published in the Journal of Democracies in January of 2017. (It can be found online at Knight with the title “American Views: Truth, Media and Democracy.”)

Three factors were analyzed in the researchers’ “early warning system”: 1) The importance of democracy in the minds of a nation’s citizens; 2) the degree of public openness to military rule; and 3) whether “anti-system” parties and movements are gaining ground. If two of these conditions are apparent, Taub and his colleagues apply the term “deconsolidating” to the nation at hand. Prominent examples in recent years are Venezuela and Poland.

A major sociological finding was that many more Americans — 58 percent (dubbed “the Inattentive Skeptics”) — believe it is now more difficult to distinguish objective news from opinion. Only 38 percent (“the Knowledgable Optimists”) disagree. Twenty-three percent are “neutral.” In 1984 only 42 percent believed that media were unreliable in this regard.

Imagine this: Only 27 percent of American adults are sure “they can tell when a news source is reporting facts.”

Another quite telling datum: “A majority [polled] cannot name an objective news source.”

(Notice the highly connotative modifier applied to those Americans who constitute the majority opinion in the polling results: “Inattentive.” It is estimated that there are some 40 million illiterates and semi-literates in the most powerful nation on Earth — approximately 1 in 7.)

Taub and Foa’s research indicated that 43 percent of Americans have a negative view of U.S. media, versus 33 percent whose view is positive.

In Australia, the U.K., the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Sweden, the percentages of citizens deeming democracy “essential” have dropped. In the U.S. a greater percentage of young people have taken the position that “army rule” would be “good or very good.” This population rose from 1 in 16 in 1995 to 1 in 6 in 2014. Forty-three percent overall believe that a military takeover would be legal, but only 19 percent of Millennials do.

J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan: “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”

Ernest Hemingway on the question of trust: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

Corrie Ten Boom: “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

Paulo Coelho: “None of us knows what might happen even the next minute, yet still we go forward. Because we trust. Because we have faith.”

What else is new? And what could be more essentially “American”?

Why should people trust anybody?, queried a talk show pundit recently.

The answer is obvious: Crucial civilized values hang in the balance.

The unavoidable correlative question that any thoughtful American, regardless of class, race, or political party, must now confront:

Does President Donald Trump represent “civilized values”?

Nash is author of the two-volume Patsy of the Ages: Lee Harvey Oswald and His Nation Half a Century Later.