We take for granted today that people don't trust government. Yet we also take for granted that most Americans are proud to be American. How do those two feelings coexist? Surveys support both views: a majority of Americans don't trust government's ability to solve our society's hardest problems; but a larger majority of Americans believe our democratic system is the best in the world.
I believe the reasons for these two divergent views is simple: trust. Trust is an essential aspect of human relationships. It is an enabler of effective collaboration, and effective communities. Fukuyama's book Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity describes the vast impact trust can have on a society's ability to compete globally as well as solve local problems.
In America, we seem to prefer voluntary associations to participation in government. That is one of our strengths. We easily form trusting relationships with our neighbors, coming together to address whatever problem we want to focus on. (See my previous entry on Athens and American Democracy.)
Think how easy it is, one on one, to form a trusting relationship. Think how easy it is to crush a stereotype when you finally meet someone from that "other" group.
Now, how can you trust "government?" It's a huge, faceless institution. Are real people actually a part of it? People trust people, not institutions. Trust in institutions is incredibly difficult -- you have to transfer your trust in a person to the institution that person represents.
I'd venture to guess that people who believe all politicians are corrupt have never met one. Or that all business leaders are driven by only by greed have never met one. I've had the opportunity to meet some of our nation's elected officials, and I have to say that most of them seem genuinely motivated by a desire to do good for our society. Public service is a difficult path, and most choose that path for the right reasons.
I trust our institutions, because I've met some of the people that form those institutions. I find it harder to trust organizations where I haven't met the people there. But I am generally willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, because I've seen how my perception about an institution changes after spending time with someone who works there.
Most of us are victims of stereotyping, too. Maybe you work for a chemical company. An oil company. The Defense Department. A bank. A large agricultural company. Microsoft. Just think about what other people must think of your industry or company, and the people in it. And how wrong they are. The same thing is true about other industries you know less about.
I suppose fundamentally I'm searching for a way to think about how to build trust. Giving trust involves a real, gut-level risk, and so we are reluctant to give trust where we can't establish a real, gut-level relationship. I think that's totally reasonable. The challenge is, how do we establish those relationships with institutions? Or rather, people within those institutions?
All of this drives me to the same conclusion that I think many have already arrived at: institutions need to be personalized. Access to leaders has to be wider. A commenter on this site has said "blog for the people." I think that's what he's trying to say: give the people more access to leaders, so we can begin to trust you.
I think that's a fine idea.