An article in The New York Times business section caught my attention earlier this week. It reported on an investor survey conducted last summer by the Harris organization. Of those polled, only 27% thought President Bush “very trustworthy”, only 25% the Supreme Court, 4% each the Congress and the media and an astoundingly low 2% the Fortune 500 CEOs. While reflecting only a slice of the population, these troubling numbers were further confirmed by a poll I found on the Web where FOX asked a more representative audience in November how the Bush adminstration (to whom it is friendly) compared with previous ones on the trust question. 29% said it was more trustworthy, but 39% said less. Polls can be very misleading. Results are colored by the specific questions asked (which are often inconsistent across studies) and by timing. That we are facing a real trust deficit, however, is becoming increasingly self evident.
Much has been made about the sharp divisions within the country and around the world. From media hyped red state-blue state conflicts to the ongoing bitter and lethal cultural-religious battle for ideological and political supremacy between West and East. We have become a world of adversarial shouters not mutually respectful conversationalists and it’s taking a big toll. One of the most troubling findings in the Harris poll is that the Supreme Court is now less trusted than the president. But that too shouldn’t be surprising. Politicians and religious leaders on the Right have been consistently bashing the activist (code word) courts for years. Nowhere was this more evident than during the hyperbolic rhetoric that accompanied the Terri Schiavo saga down in Florida and on the floors of the Senate and especially the House. The controversial Bush vs. Gore decision shook people on the left who heretofore had been consistent supporters of the Court which, while not always deciding on their side, was always seen as a fair and impartial arbiter.
The trust deficit didn’t happen overnight, but it nonetheless emerged pretty quickly. Business leaders who were at the bottom of the Harris list, are feeling the pinch in the wake of Enron et al, not to mention the bubble burst in whose aftermath even blue chip high-tech companies are still trading at a fraction of their previous valuation even when they report record earnings. Who would have dreamed that a U.S. Secretary of State would find herself in daily damage control mode denying that a country built of human dignity and fair justice tortures prisoners? Who would even have thought before Abu Ghraib and Gitmo that torture could be an option for us? When the Catholic Church tried to cover up decades of known sexual child abuse by its priests and when the killing of the innocent in the “the name of God” (Muslim but also among other faiths) became routine, even religion on whose “truths” so many rely appears untrustworthy, or at least potentially so. Perhaps most devastating and far reaching of all is that because these things are going on in the world not so much of the Patriot Act per se, but in its spirit, many of us no longer trust our “next door neighbor”.
The trust deficit is not a partisan problem despite the fact that much of its cause can be laid at the doorstep of the current administration. When the United States can no longer be counted upon to live up to its previous commitments on issues like global warming (whose far reaching reality and urgency it inexplicably still denies) or when it disses long time allies and the United Nations which it helped create, trust is undermined. But Democrats, the press, religious leaders and many of us individually are equally to blame either for our participation or in our silence – it’s hard to know which is worse. The trust deficit is of all our doing and certainly is our collective problem. We may ultimately be destroyed by a runaway nuclear weapon, or drowned by the rising tides coming from melting polar caps, but morally we could be done in by the trust deficit. The polls suggest, it is a problem that's here, now and unmistakable. How we face it may well be our greatest test yet.