Hauenstein Center panel: Long road ahead to repair mistrust in nation's institutions

Panel of speakers discussing a topic
Darren Walhof, chair of Grand Valley's political science department, left, leads a discussion on Americans' mistrust in the nation's institutions with panelists Linda Chavez, right, and Ethan Zuckerman.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

The mistrust exhibited toward the nation's institutions from the American public over five decades has worsened, and it doesn’t appear the trend will reverse soon, said the panel speakers at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies roundtable discussion on September 2. 

Hosting its first in-person event since March 2020, the Hauenstein Center presented “American Institutions: Love Them or Leave Them?” as part of its Common Ground Initiative at the Loosemore Auditorium on Grand Valley’s Pew Campus.

The Hauenstein Center invited Linda Chavez, senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, and Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of public policy, information and communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, to address the issue. 

Led by moderator Darren Walhof, chair of the political science department, the duo discussed the current state of prevalent animosity directed at officials, experts, and even neighbors, and how it has led to a deterioration of civility and trust.

Chavez and Zuckerman discussed how, in some cases, the institution — like the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal or Wall Street’s role in the 2008 financial crisis — played a large part in fomenting skepticism. 

But the pair also addressed other cases, such as with social media, how a stream of misinformation reinforces political or cultural beliefs and adds to the waning confidence. 

“We’re a constitutional republic, and the question is whether or not we should love or leave our institutions,” said Chavez, who chairs the Center for Equal Opportunity.

“I don’t think we have any choice in the matter. In fact, because of the nature of our constitutional democracy, if we do not preserve the institutions of democracy, we as a society will fail. Like a house when you take out the foundation, the house will not exist.”

In his book “Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them,” Zuckerman delves into the fall in institutional trust, beginning in the 1960s. 

“We have gone through a really fascinating 50-year process from becoming an incredibly trusting nation to an incredibly mistrusting nation,” said Zuckerman.

“In 1964, 77 percent of people trusted the government to do the right thing almost all of the time. You ask that question now, and you’ll get somewhere between 12-15 percent.”

Panel speaker addresses the audience
Image credit - Amanda Pitts
Panel of speakers discuss a topic
Image credit - Amanda Pitts
Panel speaker address the audience
Image credit - Amanda Pitts
The Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies presented a panel discussion on the topic "American Institutions: Love Them or Leave Them?"

Disagreement over facts is also further driving the wedge of mistrust. An audience member asked for the panelists’ thoughts on the theory that a common enemy or existential threat could be the impetus to unite people.

Zuckerman pointed out we’re facing two crises today — COVID-19 and climate change — and it hasn’t united Americans. 

“We seem to be at a moment where we’re no longer disagreeing about interpretations of facts, we’re often disagreeing about facts,” he said. “At that point, we’re functionally living in different universes. 

“So what I have a great deal of fear over now is this splitting of reality, and this idea that we can’t find common ground because we’re not living in this factual universe most of the time.”

Most disheartening to Chavez and Zuckerman is the inability for those of opposing viewpoints to engage civilly. Too many times, societal norms erode in a discussion whether in person or online. 

Referring to 18th century economist Adam Smith and his book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Chavez sees those norms must be reestablished before connections are repaired.  

“I really do believe that you have to have the kind of norms, there has to be an agreement, a certain kind of civil behavior,” she said. 

If there is a glimmer of hope, the pair agreed it can start on a small scale. 

“I think a lot of it has to deal with bridge building on small scales,” said Zuckerman. “I’m very grateful that we’re coming together and having a conversation like this.”


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