Among the social problems that last year’s presidential race revealed was that large swaths of Americans have lost faith in our traditional political parties, if not in our political system.
That the candidacies of Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, and Donald Trump, a non-traditional conservative by any standard, gained so much traction shows how many citizens have grown disenchanted and disenfranchised.
But what if the Sanders-Trump phenomenon wasn’t, indeed, all that phenomenal? What if it was merely a symptom of a broader loss of faith in American institutions?
What if this loss of faith in our country’s institutions is itself only a symptom? What if that loss of faith is a global trend occurring in nations around the world and has been slowly fermenting for decades, if not centuries?
What would that mean for the future?
A startling op-ed piece in the March 3 online Washington Post suggests such questions.
The op-ed by Bill Bishop, “Americans have lost faith in institutions. That’s not because of Trump or ‘fake news,’” documented a national and worldwide shift away from confidence in traditional institutions.
I’ve been thinking about that essay for a month.
Some of you might remember Bishop, who used to write for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He lives in Texas now, and he is co-author of “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.”
This isn’t just an American issue we can blame on the legacies of Watergate or, conversely, hippies.
Loss of faith in American institutions has been particularly noticeable since the 1960s and ’70s.
According to a Gallup poll, between 1973 and 2016, Americans’ confidence in the U.S. Congress fell from 42 percent to 9 percent, Bishop writes.
Faith in the U.S. Supreme Court fell from 45 percent to 36 percent, and in the presidency from 52 percent to 36 percent.
Organized religion, banks, public schools, organized labor, the media and big business all suffered similarly sharp declines in public confidence.
Only faith in the military, the police and the criminal justice system increased.
But this isn’t just an American issue that we can blame on the legacies of Watergate or, conversely, hippies.
The erosion of trust started earlier — and is common to nearly all advanced industrial nations, regardless of their history or type of government.
The causes are complex.
“The changes that seemed to erupt suddenly in the early 1960s actually began long before and moved slowly at first, as the globe shrank and societies modernized,” Bishop writes. “As far back as the 1600s, travelers confronted by new cultures and novel deities began to question their own societies’ rules and institutions.”
Globalization, urbanization, and universal education all have played roles — they’ve expanded people’s experiences and their willingness to think for themselves.
We feel kinship with our neighbors because statistically we’ve segregated ourselves into zip codes or even states where nearly everyone is just like us; they mirror our politics, race and class.
Prosperity and freedom have contributed, too. By the 1970s, one political scientist predicted that as societies grew wealthier, their citizens would become less communal and more concerned about individuality — and consequently, less trusting of institutions and authorities.
“Everything about modern life works against community and trust,” Bishop says.
We’ve shifted the purpose of marriage from a practical arrangement to a means of personal fulfillment, he says. We’ve replaced the shared military draft with an all-volunteer service. We’ve traded craftsmanship and assessment in art to free-range creativity and self-promotion. We’ve reversed the order of religion from obeying a god to choosing one.
There is still a place where many people feel a strong sense of shared purpose: in their own backyards. That may sound like a hopeful thing, but Bishop says it’s not. We feel kinship with our neighbors because statistically, we’ve segregated ourselves into ZIP codes or even states where nearly everyone is just like us; they mirror our politics, race and class.
There’s much more to Bishop’s op-ed; you might ought to look it up yourself.
He proposes no solutions and neither can I — you’d practically have to unmake modern culture to reverse this trend.
But the dangers are clear. We’re now witnessing huge fissures in our national political system, for instance, and the rapid disintegration of marriage.
Bishop again: “Political scientists tell us that democracies require a little faith. To engage with others, you have to believe that if you lose a contest or a debate, the winner will treat you equitably; that if the other side wins, it will act within the law and not send its opponents off to jail. You have to assume that institutions will be fair and that leaders will act in the country’s best interest.”
But it’s impossible to trust each other enough to believe in common decency that might hold a country together when there is no country as such. Instead we have now a vast assemblage of individuals pursuing private blisses, who don’t much respect those trying to motivate, inform or lead them, and who don’t trust those whose vision differs from theirs.
That’s a recipe for chaos.
Paradoxically, the mayhem might be worse if the only remaining institutions people do trust are the military, cops and judges. With no other respected powers serving as recognized checks and balances, those institutions could become fertile ground for a coup or a police state.
As I said, I have no solution. My advice: Pray, children. Pray.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.