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.
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.'
In fact, some studies suggest it's too late for most Americans alive today to become more trusting. That research says the basis for a person's lifetime trust levels is set by his or her mid-twenties and unlikely to change, other than in some unifying crucible such as a world war.
People do get a little more trusting as they age. But beginning with the baby boomers, each generation has started off adulthood less trusting than those who came before them.
How can you make sense of Americans' loss of trust ?
The best-known analysis comes from 'Bowling Alone' author Robert Putnam's nearly two decades of studying the United States' declining 'social capital,' including trust.
Putnam says Americans have abandoned their bowling leagues and Elks lodges to stay home and watch TV. Less socializing and fewer community meetings make people less trustful than the 'long civic generation' that came of age during the Depression and World War II.
University of Maryland Professor Eric Uslaner, who studies politics and trust, puts the blame elsewhere: economic inequality.
Trust has declined as the gap between the nation's rich and poor gapes ever wider, Uslaner says, and more and more Americans feel shut out. They've lost their sense of a shared fate. Tellingly, trust rises with wealth.
After 30,000 detailed interviews, the guru of social capital, Harvard Professor Robert Putnam found The downside of diversity
Higher diversity meant lower social capital. In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to "distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television."Posted by Jill Fallon at December 17, 2013 11:22 PM | Permalink
"People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to 'hunker down' -- that is, to pull in like a turtle," Putnam writes.
In more diverse communities, he says, there were neither great bonds formed across group lines nor heightened ethnic tensions, but a general civic malaise. And in perhaps the most surprising result of all, levels of trust were not only lower between groups in more diverse settings, but even among members of the same group.
"Diversity, at least in the short run," he writes, "seems to bring out the turtle in all of us."
"The extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.