SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

December 3, 2013

In God we trust, but maybe not each other

WASHINGTON — You can take our word for it. Americans don’t trust each other anymore.

We’re not talking about the loss of faith in big institutions such as the government, the church or Wall Street, which fluctuates with events. For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy — trust in the other fellow — has been quietly draining away.

These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.

Forty years later, a record high of nearly two-thirds say “you can’t be too careful” in dealing with people.

An AP-GfK poll conducted last month found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road, or people they meet when traveling.

“I’m leery of everybody,” said Bart Murawski, 27, of Albany, N.Y. “Caution is always a factor.”

Does it matter that Americans are suspicious of one another? Yes, say worried political and social scientists.

What’s known as “social trust” brings good things.

A society where it’s easier to compromise or make a deal. Where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good. Where trust appears to promote economic growth.

Distrust, on the other hand, seems to encourage corruption. At the least, it diverts energy to counting change, drawing up 100-page legal contracts and building gated communities.

Even the rancor and gridlock in politics might stem from the effects of an increasingly distrustful citizenry, said April K. Clark, a Purdue University political scientist and public opinion researcher.

“It’s like the rules of the game,” Clark said. “When trust is low, the way we react and behave with each other becomes less civil.”

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