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Opinion: Our national fabric is tearing. Here’s how to fix it

America has looked like this before. It was during the Gilded Age, the age of the robber barons and hyper individuality.

Cory Etowah, of Native American descent, holds a sign as he shares his message of love for all Americans on Monday.
Cory Etowah holds a sign as he shares his message of love for all Americans on Monday. Etowah, who is of Native American descent, wants to see a change in the country’s divisive political climate.
Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press

There’s no use in pretending anymore. Our national fabric has been tearing for decades. Political polarization is widening. The economic divide keeps growing. Solidarity is slipping away. Social capital is in decline.

Shaylyn Romney Garrett, co-author with Robert Putnam of “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can do it Again,” illuminated the convergence of these challenges at the Utah Foundation’s recent 2021 annual luncheon. The situation is not good.

“We have never been more politically polarized than we are today,” she said, with one exception: the Civil War — “the moment when it came to bloodshed.”

She also painted an intriguing picture showing that while political comity, economic equality, solidarity and social capital have been in decline since the 1960s, this was not the end of an era, but a peak. Those measures had, prior to 1960, been ascending since the late 19th century.

In other words, America has looked like this before. It was during the Gilded Age, the age of the robber barons and hyper individuality. The elites justified themselves by adhering to an anti-gospel of social Darwinism. Those who weren’t invited to the cocktail party didn’t deserve to be there, anyway.

Various analyses have documented a decline in attitudes reflecting social trust at the national level. One major survey found that whereas in 2007 57% of Americans believed in the wisdom of the American people in making political decisions, that number had plummeted to about one-third by 2015 and stayed low through 2019. Trust in government itself has declined as well.

After a rise in the late 1990s, trust in government began plummeting after 2000, going from 50% believing Washington could be trusted most of the time to only 16% by 2015. Trust in the national news media has plummeted, particularly among conservatives and independents, and the decline in trust is only worsening: One group’s national polling registered a 20% decline in its trust index for traditional media from March 2021 to July 2021 alone.

Social trust can be described as the extent to which people believe that other people in their community will do the right thing most of the time. When asked about how much they trust their neighbors, Utah has some of the very highest social trust levels in the nation. When asked about institutions like the media, educational institutions and corporations (some of which are national in scope), Utahns’ trust level is below average.

The Utah Foundation dug deeper in the new report “The Kindness of Strangers: Social Trust in Utah.” It presents data and analysis on four hard indicators: convictions for fraud, penalties for breach of trust, public corruption convictions and violent crime rates. Utah compares favorably, outperforming the national average across the board. Utah has the nation’s lowest level of breach-of-trust penalties. When it comes to federal corruption convictions, Utah performed second best in the nation, behind only Wyoming. On violent crime, Utah in 2019 is part of a cluster of three Mountain states (with Wyoming and Idaho) that can boast rates far below the national average. Fraud convictions in Utah are below the national average and trending downward. Among the Mountain states, only one other state has a lower level of fraud convictions.

In other words, the fundamentals for social trust in Utah look strong, and are backed up by attitude surveys showing we trust each other. But our trust of the federal government or the national news media may be another story.

What if the U.S. wanted to rebuild social trust — and thereby our social fabric? Based on my conversation with Romney Garrett, here are some thoughts.

To begin with, don’t wait for a mass movement. While individualism must be kept in balance with a community spirit, each person must make a conscious choice to reach for common ground. As Romney Garrett put it: “We shouldn’t wait on the moment to change us. We should change the moment.” This implies, person by person, family by family, a moral revolution.

It also implies that, when it comes to political action, we need to focus our efforts at the local level. Americans seem to have it backwards: The level of government we trust the least and which we can affect the least and which has the least impact on our daily lives is the federal government. And yet the vast majority of our civic energy goes into following Washington’s daily drama. We need to reverse this and put far more of our energies into building trustworthy state and local governments, informed by a trustworthy local media.

After all, that’s the way this nation was conceptualized.

Peter Reichard is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at peter@utahfoundation.org. Read the new report, “The Kindness of Strangers,” and other installments in the Utah Social Capital Series at utahfoundation.org.