It’s said that distrust is the greatest loneliness. If you can’t bring yourself to give it, you won’t see any in return. Worse, distrust grinds on democracy; it builds alienated and disaffected masses and self-fulfilling prophecies of broken faith and disappointment. But when we expect the worst from our leaders or casually assume “they” are all just in it for themselves, we are actually telling on ourselves. We’re saying that no one in our community is worthy of actual trust.
Political headlines in Nebraska over the past few weeks have not been great confidence-builders in the democracy-building space. From revelations to resignations to investigations, it’s been enough to give even the most stalwart optimists pause.
The partisan responses to each new headline have been predictable, of course, and are not worth repeating here. Instead, we’d like to focus on a more ominous reaction that’s clearly out there: the resigned shrug. We’re fooling ourselves if we don’t acknowledge this sentiment, and what it can do if it becomes too pervasive. Here’s a recent way-too-typical expression of it on social media:
This statement, of course, is untrue. There are many, many dedicated public servants at all levels of government. But to the person who wrote it, it certainly feels true. And often, that’s enough to bring their faith in our democratic systems down a few more critical notches.
We have to nudge back when we encounter such sentiments. Simply put, democracy runs on trust. Democracy only works because enough people believe it works, and that requires faith. Faith in government institutions, faith in our elected officials, faith in our officials acting justly and appropriately in our name, and faith in one another. As Nebraskans – as Americans – this is what we demand.
If you snickered at that last sentence, well … you’re not alone. It’s no secret that political trust has been plummeting for the past five decades in America, ever since Watergate opened that particular Pandora’s Box. In that time, our mainstream media have gone from a wide-appeal, minimize-harm news product to scandal-laden “content” for hyper-engaged consumers of politics. This has metastasized into today’s multibillion-dollar outrage industry. It would be silly to think that this has had no negative effect on our views of government, high-profile political opponents, and each other.
Of course, a measure of distrust is baked into our national attitude. We Americans have always had a healthy skepticism toward those in power, and that’s done us well over the centuries. But at times like these, we have to remind ourselves that there’s a big difference between healthy skepticism and outright cynicism.
The antidote to this is not to grow hardened in our relationships. The antitode is to be vulnerable in them – vulnerable enough to connect with one another in the shared decision-making that our democracy requires. This is what Civic Nebraska works to strengthen around our state every day. Civic health is the radically un-radical notion that when we are more connected to one another and to institutions, we are better positioned to solve local problems, which in turn builds shared – wait for it – trust.
Democracy is built and expanded by citizens who are more connected, informed, and truly engaged in their community, their state, and their nation. Democracy is all of us – the We in We The People. People who are joiners, who are advocates for themselves and others, and who are leaders regardless of whether they have a big title. This starts from a position of belief and a position of trust.
We see this every day in our travels around Nebraska. This is why we remain optimistic, even after a few weeks of tough headlines – in fact, especially after a few weeks of tough headlines. In times like these, being vulnerable enough to trust is a sign of strength, not weakness. This is certainly true for individuals, and it’s especially true for democracy.