Loss of Trust: How Did We Get Here? How Do We Move Forward?

By Thomas Ringenberg

I study one of the least liked and trusted groups in American society, the U.S. Congress. A June 2016 Gallup poll measuring confidence in key societal institutions put the number of Americans with “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress at 9 percent. This is a 10-point decrease from the already low 19 percent in 2006. Our other national institutions, the (Obama) presidency and the (8 member) Supreme Court fared slightly better with 36% expressing confidence. The full table from the Gallup study is found below.

It is not unusual to see Americans weary of government. The culture of individualism in our democracy is a key feature of our identity. It is perhaps no surprise that 9 in 10 lack confidence in Congress and 2 in 3 lack confidence in the presidency. But what do we make of the 4 in 5 Americans who distrust television news and newspapers? What about our justice system? Doctors? Public schools?

In months since President Trump’s election, we have seen alarmists’ responses, and these are understandable. But I don’t want to be an alarmist here, and you should not feel that temptation either. Distressing facts need not be considered existential threats. As individuals committed to Jesuit pedagogy, we must strive to understand as we act to transform, to be “contemplatives in action.” We must consider our place in the structures and institutions of American society. We must also consider the emotions and motivations of those we encounter.

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If you are reading this article, I’m sorry to say that you are likely a part of the elite that a number of Americans feel threatened by, distrust, or just simply dislike. The authority of our medical community on the necessity and safety of vaccines is challenged. The authority of scientists who study genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or global warming is challenged. The wisdom of professors, the usefulness of the liberal arts, and the worth of college education generally are questioned. Our once authoritative media is now derided as “FAKE NEWS” and the “enemy of the American People” by our president. But it is not just politicians, scientists and journalists. In that Gallup poll on Americans’ confidence, organized religion saw a larger drop than newspapers, Congress, and television news.

President Trump, in my opinion,represents the inevitable appeal of a populist candidate in an era of increasingly anti-elitist sentiments. The traditional gatekeepers of knowledge,resources, and power generally are now open to examination themselves. What we (again, sorry to throw the reader under the elite bus) have historically considered wisdom may no longer be sacrosanct for our students and the public at large. The conclusions of the scientific community, the ethics and methods of journalists, the multicultural foundations of American society, and the necessity of public goods from “Sesame Street” to “Meals on Wheels” are now on trial.

What role do institutions of higher learning have in this environment? If we are to be “Sanctuaries for Truth and Justice” as this issue of Conversations asserts, how do we foster rational discourse and a welcoming space?

 "Hill," a photo of the U.S. Capitol, courtesy of  Zach Stern  of the Flickr Creative Commons. 

"Hill," a photo of the U.S. Capitol, courtesy of Zach Stern of the Flickr Creative Commons. 

The values of Ignatian conversation provide a useful guide. In Ignatius’s presupposition, he argues that every good Christian should “be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity.” As we encounter perspectives that we find repulsive, we must seek to understand the appeal of those ideas. When we encounter propositions that are meant badly, we must work to rebut those ideas with empathy. Importantly, Ignatius does not assert that these propositions should be left unchallenged.

We must consider how we challenge ideas, opinions, and the occasional “alternative fact” that are in opposition to our values of truth and justice. But, the scholarly community and religious institutions are viewed with some of the same skepticism as are the president and Congress. It may be that we are the ones called to justify our propositions, our research, our philosophy, or our worth. Can we respond to these challenges in an Ignatian manner?

Tom Ringenberg is assistant professor of political science at Rockhurst University, where he teaches courses on American politics and public policy.