US Social Trust Has Fallen 23 Points Since 1964

Sorry for the hiatus. I keep doing podcasts and articles on other sites for Trust in a Polarized Age, and I don’t want to irritate my readers on social media with too much content. When I get done talking about the book so often, I’ll return to my regularly scheduled blogging.

Lots of people talk about the US decline in social trust. I do all the time. The data I use comes from the General Social Survey, which shows a drop of 46% in 1972 when it began to 31.5% in 2018, and the drop is fairly graduate. But the World Values Survey, taken every 4-6 years in the US, shows a 7 point decline between 1981 to 2017, and there’s no WVS survey between 1981 and 1998 that asks the standard trust question (“Can most people be trusted or can you never be too careful in dealing with people?”) in the US. Also, people sometimes say the WVS is done poorly. So I mostly ignore the WVS and go with the GSS.

However, foolishly, I didn’t realize the awesomely done American National Election Survey (ANES) asked the standard trust question,  starting in 1964. And it has a different pattern. Trust is around 55% in 1964, around 46% in 1972 (matching the GSS), and there’s a gradual decline, but for some reason 2000 and 2002 have social trust at 1964 levels. Then in 2008, trust plummets to just under 30%. Then they stopped asking the yes-no question and went to a five point scale in 2012 and 2016, and there are difficulties translating the 5-point scale (people can be trusted all the time, some of the time, none of the time, etc) into simple percentages. But it looks like trust remains quite low and maybe falls a bit further.

One reason it is cool to have both the GSS and the ANES is because the US was asking the trust question long before researchers were asking it all around the world. Some countries are just getting in the game in the 2000s, and no one but the US seems to have data before 1980.

I don’t know what’s going on, so I just plotted all the years we have data from any of the three surveys, and when I had multiple data points from one year, I just averaged them. From what I can tell, this is the only chart I’ve seen that plots social trust with an ANES-GSS-WVS average. And it is rather striking: a 23-point decline.

Now, other countries have great, big declines in social trust, but this is typically due to a major institutional transition from dictatorship to democracy (Spain, Chile, Romania, and Poland), or big increases, which typically follow periods of institutional stability (Germany and adjacent countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland). But the US hasn’t had anything like that level of institutional instability. So the US is an international outlier because we’ve had a sharp drop in social trust despite institutional stability. I think part of the reason for this is that political polarization, trust in government, and interpersonal trust are in a complex causal feedback loop, as I argue in the introduction to Trust in a Polarized Age.

So, here’s what I think is the most data-rich graph of where we stand (data). It is quite bad. Falls in social trust have big costs.

Political Liberals vs. Integralists: Where the Conflict Really Lies

I’d  like to return to my ongoing interest in anti-liberal doctrines, especially the new Catholic integralism. I think it might be worthwhile exploring how the political liberalism of John Rawls clashes with integralism, and attempt to make the criticism plausible. The integralists may still deride it, and how!, but it will serve for clarificatory purposes.

I now believe that the most central difference between Catholic integralism and Rawlsian political liberalism is their differing views of the rationality of moral disagreement. Political liberalism indeed presupposes that deep disagreement about the requirements of morality is natural to human beings; that it is the inevitable result of the free exercise of human reason. Catholic integralists deny this. People may disagree about morality, but that is because of sin—a failure, culpable or no—to receive the grace of God by way of the Catholic Church directly, and through political institutions partly governed by the Church. I think for the integralists, two members of an integralist society with a modest degree of natural and supernatural virtue will tend to agree about the requirements of the natural law for human behavior.

John Rawls

This is not what Rawlsians would consider the free exercise of human reason, of course, but it is the condition that integralists would regard as the freest, and indeed this points to another deep difference: about the nature of freedom. Rawls likes negative liberty, but he also likes positive liberty, and indeed is friendly to the idea of the freedom that is achieved by the use of reason. But the integralist will insist that the exercise of human reason is only truly free when it has been, at least to some extent, dusted off by the reception of the sacraments.

So, here’s one of Rawls’s first comments on integralist-type views. The theory of rational moral disagreement is in the driver’s seat and indeed necessitates the much-derided idea of the reasonable:

The advantage of staying within the reasonable is that there can be but one true comprehensive doctrine, though as we have seen, many reasonable ones. Once we accept the fact that reasonable pluralism is a permanent condition of public culture under free institutions, the idea of the reasonable is more suitable as part of the basis of public justification for a constitutional regime than the idea of moral truth. Holding a political conception as true, and for that reason alone the one suitable basis of public reason, is exclusive, even sectarian, and so likely to foster political division (129).

Notice the phrase bolded phrase: if reasonable pluralism is permanent, then we should abandon basing political order on the truth rather than the reasonable. If these social and epistemic conditions obtain, views like integralism are bound to be “exclusive, even sectarian, and so likely to foster political division.”

Rawls understood the rationale for integralist-type views. Here’s a passage where he understands why his view is seen as problematic:

I now turn to what to many is a basic difficulty with the idea of public reason, one that makes it seem paradoxical. They ask: why should citizens in discussing and voting on the most fundamental political questions honor the limits of public reason? How can it be either reasonable or rational, when basic matters are at stake, for citizens to appeal only to public conception of justice and not to the whole truth as they see it? Surely, the most fundamental questions should be settled by appealing to the most important truths, yet these may far transcend public reason! (216)

This is precisely what integralists say: it seems obvious that the most “fundamental questions” should be settled by appealing to “the most important truths.” And this might be a suitable basis for political order if not for the fact of reasonable pluralism.

Pope Leo XIII

Interestingly, Rawls associates recognizing the fact of reasonable pluralism as part of being a reasonable citizen, where a reasonable citizen is one who recognizes a moral requirement to propose reciprocal terms of social cooperation: ones that persons with a wide range of views about morality can all accept. The integralist also believes in reciprocity, but does not apply reciprocity to differences of moral opinion. This is why political life comes to be understood as the relation

… of friend or foe, to those of a particular religious or secular community or those who are not; or it may be a relentless struggle to win the world for the whole truth. (442)

And remarkably, Rawls admits the following:

Political liberalism does not engage those who think this way. The zeal to embody the whole truth in politics is incompatible with an idea of public reason that belongs with democratic citizenship. (442)

However, Rawls is mistaken in this passage about his aims: political liberalism does engage the integralist because it makes competing claims about the nature of moral reasoning.

Notice that this point is not lost on all Catholic theologians. To mention one example that will lead the integralist to permanently roll his eyes into the back of his head, consider John Courtney Murray’s remark about Dignitatis Humanae (the Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1965):

A longstanding ambiguity had finally been cleared up. The Church does not deal with the secular order in terms of a double standard—freedom for the Church when Catholics are in the minority, privilege for the Church and intolerance for others when Catholics are a majority.*

Here Murray shares a conception of reciprocity with Rawls because fairness includes fairness between moral perspectives. I think Murray tacitly accepts what Rawls make explicit: that people of good will and virtue can disagree about the requirements of morality, and so to be fair to all such persons, we must propose reciprocal terms of cooperation understood as terms that all can accept.

John Courtney Murray

So, this is where I think the divergence between political liberals and Catholic integralists begin: about the rationality of disagreement about the requirements of the natural law between persons of some reasonable degree of virtue.

How should this dispute be resolved? Well, I have quite a few thoughts about the matter, but that’s not the point of the post! The point of the post is that we should probably not ground the difference between the two views in terms of different philosophical anthropologies. You can hold many anthropological properties constant and still disagree about whether moral reasoning leads to dissensus or consensus.


*John Courtney Murray, “Religious Freedom,” in Abbott, ed., Documents of Vatican II, p. 673. See also the instructive discussion by Paul E. Sigmund, “Catholicism and Liberal Democracy,” in Catholicism and Liberalism: Contributions to American Public Philosophy, ed. R. Bruce Douglas and David Hollenbach, S.J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), especially pp. 233–239.

The Wounds of the Heart

The last two months have been challenging for me, hence my lack of blogging. They aren’t limited to losing my advisor. But what I have seen running throughout many of these challenges is a kind of a deep psychological that I will call wounds of the heart.

A wound of the heart is an emotional hurt that generates intense, seemingly unbearable psychic stress and that can create long-term damage to one’s personality due to overpowering negative moral emotions, like resentment and hatred, and that may last for the rest of one’s life. They are typically caused by some act by one’s close friends, family, or community. The wounded person believes the act signals that the offending group bears him or her bad will, and that the group does not love or support the wounded person in the way he or she had counted upon in the past. It can overwhelm the wounded person’s agency, leading them to lash out and creating a new harm, and perhaps wounding the hearts of others. When multiple parties to a relationship have wounds of the heart, that can spell the death of the relationship, even if the relationship continues pro forma.

One remarkable feature of wounds of the heart is that they can easily lead to false beliefs about the purported wounding individual or group, not merely that one’s family, friends, or community is corrupt or toxic, but that the group has been corrupt and toxic all along. We who are wounded revisit the wounding event, coming to a darker and darker reading of it, attributing worse and worse motives to those involved, all to comfort ourselves in a way that never quite works. In this way, a wound of the heart can trap the wounded person in beliefs that make healing impossible, even when the purported wounding party is in fact open to reconciliation and healing, and indeed yearns for it.

Healing wounds of the heart is an urgent moral task, in no small part because it can create new, negative character traits, and even break the unity of one’s soul and agency. But it is very difficult to begin the healing process. Usually the wounded person is so overwhelmed with hurt that he or she has had to close herself off emotionally in order to endure the hurt. Proposing to heal the wound is a psychic threat in itself because it creates the possibility of new hurt and pain. But without healing, things will only get worse, or they will settle at a level of harm that becomes too ingrained to heal.

I try to cultivate a desire to heal the wounds of the heart I have played any role in, but those desires have always been frustrated. And the pain I’ve felt in my inability to heal those wounds is one of the reasons I became so interested in trust and reconciliation in the first place. But those I have wounded have refused to speak with me, or have insisted that I see the world in their way before any conversation can begin, even when that is a wholly unreasonable demand.

I also have my own wounds of the heart, ones that I struggle to heal every day with prayer and repentance. But they remain a never-ending source of grief and anger. I am not sure my wounds of the heart will heal in my lifetime. Until then, it is my responsibility to manage them, keep them in check, and to pray that God will give me the opportunity to heal and even reconcile despite them. It is essential for the health of my soul that I do this. This level of pain can overwhelm anyone, distort their personality, and cause staggering moral decline. Perhaps this has already happened to me, perhaps the damage is permanent, but today I am recommitting to soldiering on. May I be healed of my wounds of the heart, and may I play some role, however small, in healing the heart wounds of others.