About this Issue

What does political polarization do to social trust? And what can classical liberals do about it?

By a wide variety of metrics, Americans’ trust in established institutions has been on the wane for decades. This decline encompasses both governmental and non-governmental institutions; while trust in Congress has rarely if ever been lower, trust in organized religious denominations is likewise at a low ebb.

Yet low levels of trust are strongly associated with a variety of clearly negative social outcomes. Markets, governments, the private institutions of civil society, families, and virtually all aspects of our social life require some degree of trust to function at all, and they need a relatively high degree of trust to function well.

What has been causing our declining trust, and what can be done about it? This month we have invited Prof. Kevin Vallier, the author of the recent book Trust in a Polarized Ageto write the lead essay, which focuses on how those in the classical liberal or libertarian world can approach the phenomenon of trust in today’s political climate. He will be joined by Professors Irina Soboleva and Steven Horwitz, and by Martin Gurri, the author of the landmark book The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New MillenniumComments will be open through the month, and readers are invited to join the discussion.

Lead Essay

Classical Liberals in a Polarized Age: A Warlike Politics Is the Greatest Threat to Liberty

Classical liberalism, the political movement to which I belong, is in decline. Illiberalisms, both left and right, grow bold, spurring one another on with outrage, censorship, and tribalism. Politics is more warlike than at any time in living memory. And classical liberals have joined the conflict, taking sides rather than defending freedom. Too many of us care more about the red or blue team than about preserving liberalism from them both.

Instead of choosing a side, we classical liberals must take on a new role in American society as a movement that can reduce political polarization and restore social trust through the limitation and decentralization of political power.

Falling trust and rising polarization pose a grave but ignored threat to liberty. We must also reformulate classical liberal ideas to create a new antiwar movement, one that aims at resisting the political war raging within the United States. But to do this, we must understand the dynamics of trust and polarization.

The Promise of Trusting Societies

Social trust—faith that strangers will abide by established norms—has been in gradual decline in the United States since the early 1960s. The decline is worrisome because social trust produces many great goods, such as lower corruption, higher economic growth, and a more robust and active civil society. Social trust lowers corruption in the legal system; it discourages legal officials from violating the informal norms that prohibit bribery, theft, fraud, and self-interested decisionmaking. Social trust encourages higher economic growth by making people more willing to exchange and helping them to become more economically productive. It leads people to form new associations because they feel safe around strangers.

High-trust societies are also more amenable to deregulation and privatizations because they are less concerned that private persons and firms will misbehave. It has been much easier for Sweden to move from democratic socialism to a capitalist welfare state, with large privatizations, deregulation, and tax cuts, because Sweden is one of the world’s most trusting nations. The Swedish market liberals who proposed these policies in the 1980s and ‘90s were often greeted as acting in good faith. But when market liberals in the United States propose similar policies, they are met with furious denunciations and accusations that they are the servants of corporate power.

Totalitarian states target social trust. Propaganda and secret police constantly encourage neighbors to turn on one another. State power becomes total because communities and local institutions that could resist state power disintegrate. High-trust societies are freer because they demand less control of their members and are better able to resist it.

High-trust societies do demand larger welfare states, but from a classical liberal perspective there are two mitigating factors. First, high-trust countries’ institutions are much less corrupt, and so they are less wasteful. Second, high-trust countries have broad support for redistribution, including from the very rich, which helps to ensure that redistribution is more voluntary than it is in medium and low-trust countries, since more people agree to it.

On balance, classical liberals should want to live in high trust societies. But in the United States, classical liberals have stood by while trust collapses.

Political Polarization and the Decline of the Liberty Movement

Why is social trust declining? Trust theorists disagree, but one likely cause is rising political polarization. As I argue in my new book, Trust in a Polarized Age, and in The Wall Street Journal, trust is causally linked with political polarization; indeed, they are arguably in a kind of feedback loop. To stymie falling social trust, we must look for ways to reduce political polarization.

Few tasks are more important than creating peace between groups classical liberals consider our political opponents—here, they are mainstream Democrats and Republicans. These groups are not classical liberals. Not even close. But we should not want them to tear each other apart, and us along with them. Polarization in an increasingly mistrustful society is a losing proposition. And as people trust each other less, it creates a vacuum the state will fill. When trust dies, it’s replaced by coercion and control.

Indeed, circumstances in the United States are worse than what I just described. Falling trust and rising polarization have launched a “cold civil war” that has descended from occasional outbursts of violence and general incivility to a coordinated attack on the Capitol. The war is only beginning, I fear.

Classical liberals have long understood the horrors of war. For one, the wars of religion in early modern Europe spurred thinkers to establish the classical liberal tradition. More recently and here at home, classical liberals in America were more united against the threat of foreign wars and the expansions of state power that invariably follow. Our opposition to the Iraq War was strong and principled, and the movement was absolutely correct to oppose it. Our predictions of grave disaster were false only because we underestimated the horrors that would follow. No one could have foreseen the nightmare of ISIS.

And yet we have allowed ourselves to be torn to pieces by a warlike political process, dividing ever more furiously into the cultural left and right, which has led many people to reject classical liberalism altogether for right- or left-wing identity politics.

Too many classical liberals have spent more time attacking or defending Trump than defending and expanding freedom. We now prefer to shout down the red or blue team, rather than not playing their game.

Some will strenuously object to what I’ve said. “Yes, but who is the greater threat to liberty?” you may ask.

That question is important, but it is not the most important one we face. Our most pressing question is how to turn the energies of classical liberal thought and classical liberal academic, policy, and political organizations towards building a liberalism that can appeal to everyone, including liberals of other stripes, and even those tempted by illiberal ideas.

Reuniting to Save Liberty

We may not fully emerge from the coronavirus for several years, and we may well come to permanently embrace a much greater level of dependency on the state. I expect a dramatic increase in attachment to government, as Americans saw in the aftermath of World War I. We will not embrace socialism. People don’t want the government to own the means of production, in part because it manifestly doesn’t work. But socialism is not the only threat.

Political polarization has also created a suffocating dynamic that may lead to the rise of a new domestic terrorism apparatus within the federal government. We know this new apparatus will be abused, much as the foreign terrorism apparatus built after 9/11 was abused. That’s the future we face. If we are to have any hope of stopping it, we must resist the titanic clash of two increasingly anti-liberal parties.

The new illiberals don’t care to play nice. They are committed to capturing institutions. For the left, this involves capturing the education system and the business world, with a new focus on the giant tech companies and social media. The right intends to capture the Republican Party, twisting the electoral system to ensure minority rule, right-wing media, and rapidly replacing the conservative intellectual class with populists.

I fear that classical liberals are enemy #1 for both sides. The illiberal right and left know that, in the end, there can be only one victor. They are content with this winner-take-all conflict. Their fight is a force that gives them meaning. Genuine liberals have become an irritant because they resist closing society around their own contested values. But liberals are playing defense, and classical liberals can’t see it. We are too distracted by rooting for the red team or the blue team to preserve liberalism from them both.

Classical liberals sometimes tell me that there is no other option but to choose sides. But American politics has not always been this bad, nor do other countries with similar institutions face these challenges to the same degree.

A New Antiwar Liberalism

Let’s sketch a strategy for classical liberals who wish to focus on limiting polarization and boosting falling trust. Our goal must be to make peace by lowering the stakes of political conflict, which requires dividing and decentralizing power. In this way, we may bring about a new antiwar movement, one focused on ending political war at home.

We must continue to insist that the executive branch is far too powerful relative to Congress, and we should worry more about a Senate that does not properly represent both sides of the political aisle, creating a sense of political bias and exclusion that destabilizing our institutions.

We need a renewed emphasis on federalism. The more power we get out of Washington, the less there is to fight over. We must send political authority to states, even if that means that their governments may grow.

Preserving religious liberty and expanding school choice are other ways of ensuring that our cultural choices are not imposed on those who disagree, but we must also respect the values of people who have diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Conservative religious communities and progressive LGBTQ communities are here to stay. Let us make peace between them by preventing them from excluding the other from social life.

I argue in Trust in a Polarized Age that deregulating the housing market will increase economic prosperity for workers by helping them afford to live in high-wage areas. The same policy can reduce economic inequality by allowing markets to reduce the real estate of the urban rich. This would simultaneously advance the goals of right and left. Deploying prediction markets in small deliberative bodies to formulate public policy could help to avoid decisions based on misinformation and simple economic fallacies.

But the science of social trust is fairly new, and there is much we do not know. Few classical liberals have helped us understand its sources, though there have been important exceptions like Vernon Smith. And many classical liberal-adjacent scholars have much to teach us about trust, such as the Ostroms, Russell Hardin, and Robert Putnam, along with the contemporary Scandinavian political economists Andreas Bergh and Christian Bjørnskov.

My research has convinced me that we must build a united antiwar movement once again, as we did twenty years ago. The war is domestic now, and it’s taking place within our movement, and within our own hearts. The role of classical liberals in a polarized age is to bring unity in diversity through liberty.

Response Essays

Market Interaction, Anonymity, and Social Trust

I live in a neighborhood that is quite purple. I haven’t seen the 2020 data, but in 2016, it was pretty much split 50/50 between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. For someone like me, who is no fan of Hillary Clinton, and who has been highly critical of Trump since he first announced his candidacy, if not before, this seems relevant to Kevin Vallier’s idea of classical liberals as peacemakers. Or the common enemy. But there’s another part to it. My loathing of Trump and the four years of his presidency runs very deep. Even as I can imagine reasonable grounds for doing so, my gut reaction is to not think well of people who voted for the man, especially the second time around.

However, half of my neighbors made that choice. These are my same neighbors who have mowed our lawn before we took occupancy of the house and who shoveled our snow when my wife and I were both dealing with medical issues. They are the same folks who brought us welcoming gifts when we moved in and offered us food, childcare, and doggy care during my time in the hospital over the last few years. They are the same people whose dogs I adore and who always let me know when they’ve seen me on the local news. I would happily do all of the same for them.

The political polarization that Kevin discusses has been made worse by a concurrent geographic and social polarization that reduces the meaningful contact people have with those who do not share their politics. Team Red and Team Blue are not just abstract markers. Like sports teams, they are increasingly connected to geographically more isolated networks. One need only think about the data that correlate the presence of a Whole Foods with voting Democratic and a Cracker Barrel with voting Republican. Or the survey result that more Americans would object to their kids marrying someone from the other political party than to someone of a different race or ethnicity.

There is also an economic version of this problem. Too many folks on either side of the aisle are starting to see their purchases as a consumer as an opportunity to signal their tribal loyalties to one team or another. Progressives have boycotted Chick-Fil-A and Barilla pasta, while conservatives reject traditional and social media platforms that they feel are biased against them, or refuse to patronize firms or individuals who are pro-choice. Of course some firms, like Penzey’s Spices, proudly make their politics an explicit part of their brand. This politicization of consumption is both a symptom and further cause of the polarization that concerns Kevin. And for reasons I’ll discuss below, any movement in the direction of dividing into a Blue Economy and a Red Economy poses a serious threat to social trust.

Markets have an important role to play in overcoming differences and helping to create social trust. We know from survey data that people who interact more with immigrants have more positive attitudes toward them. A great deal of anti-immigrant rhetoric comes from places where people have limited, if any, experience dealing with immigrants in the market and civil society. One of the things that classical liberals can do as part of what Kevin calls a classical liberal “antiwar movement” is to encourage just this sort of interaction, but across lines of political polarization. As classical liberals, we might be uniquely positioned to create sites of such interaction given our ability to converse with both teams. Yes, as Kevin notes, we might be the mutual enemy, but the more optimistic view of that position is that at least we are in contact with both sides.

We can remind people of all the ways in which they do, in fact, deal in a trustworthy manner with people who might see the world very differently than they do. The anonymity of the marketplace can be helpful here, as it’s relevant that we do not know anything about those we deal with at the grocery store or car repair shop or Starbucks. Yet we still benefit from the interaction. Even if it were possible to know every detail about each person we directly interact with in the market every day, would we want to? Should we want to? Do people really want to deny themselves the opportunities that markets afford by virtue of their anonymity by importing the problem of polarization into that world?

The vast majority of the interactions we have in the marketplace or with civil society organizations or even with our neighbors are peaceful and cooperative, reflecting a good level of social trust. I would argue that one reason for this outcome is that we haven’t allowed the identity markers that promote polarization to overly invade those spaces, at least not at the individual level. Some businesses do, for example, display Black Lives Matter signs or MAGA paraphernalia, which might affect our consumption decisions. But most business don’t do this, and almost every business prevents employees from, for example, wearing clothing that might push away potential customers. We simply have no idea what the individuals working the deli counter at the grocery store believe about politics or other issues of the day, much less the even more anonymous others who raised the cattle, drove the trucks, and created the packaging that made it possible for me to buy some roast beef there. And that should be seen as a feature, not a bug. The anonymity of the marketplace is an important part of its ability to promote peaceful social cooperation.

We know statistically, as I do about my neighbors, that some percentage of the people we deal with every day have beliefs that we might think are abhorrent. Maintaining social trust requires two things of us. First, we need to minimize the places where we feel it necessary to declare our polarization-enhancing loyalties. And second, we have to realize that those loyalties don’t, by themselves, preclude those we disagree with from doing good things, whether anonymously in the market or more personally in our neighborhoods.

Interactions that can take place with those two considerations in mind will help forward social trust. When Trump critics, for example, are faced with acts of kindness by Trump supporters, the resulting cognitive dissonance is not going to immediately change hearts and minds, but it can force a reconsideration of the assumption of bad faith. I know that whenever I’m tempted to assume the worst about Trump voters, I force myself to remember that the odds are 50-50 that my neighbors who have done me so many kindnesses are in that group. Part of the classical liberal antiwar effort should be to point out all of these ways in which we interact beneficially, though anonymously, with those who differ from us. Again, it is a feature, not a bug, that I do not know which way specific neighbors of mine voted or what the cashier at Kroger thinks about immigration policy.

Despite the sense that “everything” is political these days, the reality is that most of the interactions we have during our typical day are still based on social trust and not undermined by increasing politicization and polarization. This is especially true when we consider the lesson of “I, Pencil” and realize the countless anonymous others responsible for the dense networks of social cooperation that bring us our daily bread. The institutions of the market make it possible for us to trust anonymous others and peacefully cooperate with strangers. Maintaining social trust might require that we shine a light on those institutions and their role in making visible the hidden ties of trust across anonymity that we take for granted every day. The danger of “woke capitalism” is that in trying to do something good by making us mindful that our consumer dollars matter, it might remove the firewall of anonymity that helps maintain the widespread social trust that markets both rely on and encourage.

Our Pathological Politics and the Search for a Cure

The great predicament of our moment in history is the collapse of the public’s trust in democratic institutions. That collapse is long-running, well-established, and catastrophic. Every corner of our fractured political landscape feels compelled to express, vociferously, its anger and repudiation. The default rhetorical posture of the web has become the rant.

At the extremes, there has been real violence. Black Lives Matter militants rampaged in our urban centers because they claimed to feel oppressed by the systemic racism of American society. QAnon protesters violated the Capitol building in Washington because they believed the electoral process was a fraud. Lives were lost in these incidents. Today democratic institutions have hordes of hyper-motivated antagonists and few defenders.

In his essay “Classical Liberals in a Polarized Age,” Kevin Vallier suggests that the crisis of trust hasn’t received the attention it deserves. That is certainly true, but not for lack of scholars who have tried to make sense of it. Yuval Levin, for one, has found the hemorrhage of trust to be largely deserved. The institutions, Levin writes, were once “formative” – they molded the character and discipline of those who inhabited them – but are now “performative” – mere platforms for elite self-expression and the promotion of personal brands. The military, which still manages to imbue its members with a code of conduct as well as functional skills, has retained the highest levels of trust among the public.

I accept Levin’s description of the decadence of the institutions, and I have tried to explain it in terms of their maladaptation to a radically transformed information environment.

The great institutions of the twenty-first century – government, political parties, media – received their shape in the twentieth. That was the heyday of the top-down, I-talk-you-listen model of organizing humanity – and this model could be accepted as legitimate only so long as it enjoyed a semi-monopoly over information in every domain. The elites at the top of the pyramid talked, certain that nobody would talk back. They promised utopia and asked to be judged on their intentions, not their performance.

The digital tsunami has simply swept away the legitimacy of this model. The storm of information has reduced the institutions to theatrical stages, and the political class is utterly demoralized as the public, in their hundreds of millions, not only talks but screams back its opposition on every question. The public’s disenchantment with the institutions may be compared to modern science’s disenchantment of the world of fairies and goblins. The collapse in trust, at the deepest level, is the falling away of an old faith.

Vallier has a somewhat different take on the question. He calls himself repeatedly a “classical liberal.” What this means I want to take up later, but it’s clearly central to Vallier’s identity as a thinker: the high place from which he views the world. He believes that classical liberalism is “in decline” for the same reason that trust is in decline: the rise of a destructive polarization in our politics. Instead of thinking their way out of the predicament, classical liberals have yielded to the temptation to take sides. The essay reads, in part, like a search for a cure for polarization, but also like an attempt to discover a redemptive mission for classical liberals.

Vallier portrays the perils of distrust in a cool transactional manner. Distrust is said to be bad for personal freedom, business, and association. What makes this approach interesting is that trust is always a moral, not a transactional, decision. I may believe that joining an organization will offer me freedom, wealth, and popularity – yet I will withhold my trust, because I think the organization is unethical or abusive to others. Or I may join the Marines, and give away my freedom for little reward, yet fully trust my commanders because we are all in service to a noble calling. How much transactional thinking enters into these judgments is a fascinating question I am happy to leave open.

The metaphor of war recurs through Vallier’s depictions of polarization. Our politics are said to be “warlike,” “a ‘cold’ civil war,” and so on. The cause of this conflict is the increasing strength of “[i]lliberalisms, both left and right” – although, since wars are fought between people, I suppose Vallier means “illiberals.” These persons, he writes, “grow bold” and spur “one another with outrage, censorship, and tribalism.” But given the transactional “great goods” of a high-trust society, why should this be? Do illiberals engage in outrage and tribalism for its own sake, or do they imagine they are doing something quite different? Alas, we are not told. Since the theme of the essay is to “make peace” between political opponents, this lack of insight may prove to be a strategic obstacle to achieving that objective.

Much as illiberals are the cause of political war, classical liberals, we are told, should be peacemakers. Vallier proposes a “new anti-war liberalism” to deconflict our politics. He hopes to build a “united anti-war movement” on the model of the agitation against the Iraq war, although the parallel is imperfect and seems to confuse metaphor with reality. Vallier maintains that the best way to separate the contending parties in the conflict is to remove from them the threat of the herding impulse of the state. That is undoubtedly correct. To this end, he advocates pushing authority from the federal government to the state and local levels. Given how ideology and geography overlap in our country, that would be a large step towards restoring social peace. Finally, he adds a few policy prescriptions, like housing deregulation, that appear less directly related to his theme, about which I have little useful to say.

After reading “Classical Liberals in a Polarized Age,” I am left with three wishes and one objection.

I once heard economic historian Deirdre McCloskey say that she didn’t know what “classical” added to the meaning of “liberal.” Yet, as I have said, the full label is foundational to Vallier’s identity – and I wish he had been more explicit about what he means by it. He describes classical liberalism as “the political movement to which I belong” but the only names he cites are scholars and thinkers, and I don’t imagine that a political movement led by university professors could ever go far. I suspect the concept is better defined in Vallier’s book, Trust in a Polarized Age, and I look forward to learning in what ways classical liberals are more than just, say, liberals who enjoy Mozart (or the Beatles).

I really wish Vallier hadn’t leaned on the war metaphor, for many reasons. First, it’s a false parallel. He speaks of our politics being “more warlike than at any time in living memory,” but I am older than him – though still, I insist, living – and I can remember four college students shot to death by American national guardsmen at Kent State, Ohio, and half a million young people (I was among them) being tear-gassed and trampled by mounted police on Constitution Avenue, Washington DC. We have been here before, and we survived as a society and a nation.

Most importantly, the metaphor of war argues against Vallier’s stated purpose. If we are truly in an incipient civil war, this is hardly the time to reduce the authority of the federal government. I note that, in the past, the metaphor has been wielded by presidents pretty promiscuously – for example, against poverty, drugs, and terrorism – always with the intent of increasing the reach of federal power. I agree with Vallier about the benefits of decentralization – but, as I gaze out the window at my placid neighbors practicing social distance as they stroll, I can do so because I don’t believe we are remotely in a civil war.

My objection concerns the character of our predicament. It’s systemic, undermining every institutional structure that helps sustain contemporary life, and it has developed in a specific historical and technological context. If the malady is structural, so must the cure be. If the environment was a precipitating factor, that must be addressed. I object to Vallier’s use of categories devoid of scale or context. Nothing is said about whether the institutions, as currently configured, deserve our trust. That’s a fundamental question. Nothing is said about the historical trajectory or the informational context. I don’t see how the search for a cure can avoid retracing that path.

So I will end with my third wish: I wish that Kevin Vallier’s very original arguments had made reference to the quarrel between the public and the elites, to the evident decadence of our institutions, and to the peculiar warping of politics in the digital age. I think they would be stronger for it.

The Perils of Voter Ignorance and Affective Polarization

In this edition’s lead essay, Kevin Vallier argues that the erosion of trust represents an undesirable development in public life, one that interacts with political polarization to create a climate of illiberalism which threatens our liberties and civil society. In his fascinating new book, he argues that these two phenomena mutually reinforce one another in a causal feedback loop, something he calls the “distrust-divergence hypothesis.”

Vallier is right to address these important concurrent developments, but I fear that he does not paint a bleak enough picture of the current American political environment. We are in the midst of a period of political ignorance, affective polarization, tribalism, and democratic backsliding unlike any in recent memory, and I have yet to find evidence that would make me optimistic that these trends will experience a sharp enough reversal anytime soon. I believe it is important to understand how entrenched these elements have become before we can even begin to address them.

Once this is done, and in the spirit of brainstorming possible solutions, I will consider the implications of the state of American politics, extract some lessons, and draw a few takeaways. In the end, I hope that the reader walks away understanding the importance of calibrating expectations around the electorate and the political process, finding ways to depoliticize or deescalate politics, and, if we cannot avoid politics as war, then at least contain its domain and scope in ways that minimize its importance and facilitate meaningful interactions divorced from politics.

The Decay of American Politics

As Vallier points out, the decline in trust is inextricably linked to political polarization. In the United States, there is no more meaningful way to understand polarization than through partisanship. While the partisan gulf has only widened during the last few years, this is not a recent phenomenon, and political scientists have been studying the nature of partisan attachment and growth in partisan support and bias for decades.

Paradoxically, Americans are quite clustered together (or unpolarized) around the center when it comes to ideology, or policy preferences. To the extent that they hold consistent views, and if we believe that we are adequately measuring these views (two major qualifiers, perhaps), most Americans are moderate. Indeed, it is the leaders themselves that are ideologically polarized. But because Americans are clearer than ever on which team they belong to, and because voters love shortcuts, they display a perverse tendency to follow their leader.

This is inextricably linked to voters’ pervasive and increasing political ignorance. While choosing not to invest in political knowledge might be rational, it is also harmful. To be sure, this decline in knowledge is not unique to the United States, but is present in other established democracies and indeed throughout the world. Not only do voters refrain from accruing knowledge, but they also struggle to filter out appropriate links of retrospective accountability from irrational ones, allowing everything from sports outcomes to shark attacks to condition their political evaluations.

This already concerns classical liberals for obvious reasons, but it should concern those who place greater faith in the state even more: after all, if we’re willing to entrust executives and policymakers with greater responsibilities, we ought to pay close attention to how informed our choices are when entrusting individuals with these powers. Voters, however, display an unsettling habit of seeing things as they please, not as they are. This behavior is partly caused and entirely made worse by the intense, tribal attachments of voters to their parties.

If voters are too ill-informed to have meaningful, substantive disagreements, then we may conclude that intense partisan attachments are not a reflection of our differences, but rather their cause. Social psychologists have long studied our human tendency to sort into groups and the ensuing danger of these in-group attachments morphing into a form of tribalism. In the context of American politics, this is most strongly manifested as partyism, which results in Democrats and Republicans harboring animosity, hostility, and resentment toward one another, at least in the abstract. This results in studies finding Democrats and Republicans willing to discriminate along party lines when considering suitable spouses for their children or evaluating résumés and granting scholarships.

Thus, voters seem not to know much about politics, except that they hate those who support the rival team. As a result, Americans are more comfortable articulating their feelings about politics rather than offering their thoughts thereof. This affective polarization has seeped into political trust, a proxy for government support. In particular, partisans overwhelmingly distrust their government when the opposing party is in charge.

This hostility extends beyond merely the other political party and its supporters, and instead those groups that voters associate with them, as well as the salient position issues that party leaders project to their supporters. What we are left with is a political landscape in which voters hold opposing views surrounding their party leaders, their beliefs and attitudes, and each other.

During the Trump presidency, some of these gaps, which were already wide, somehow found enough space to widen. In 2020, Democrats and Republicans disagreed even more than a few years prior on their feelings toward white people, rich people, and immigrants; Christians, atheists, and Muslims; and journalists, college professors, and even the military, which not long ago served as a uniting force across party aisles. The same goes for their feelings toward key figures, such as Mitch McConnell, Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, and, naturally, Donald Trump. To no one’s surprise, the same holds for their views of one another: partisans’ views about “most Republicans” and “most Democrats” being moral, hard-working, generous, and knowledgeable became even more polarized than they were in 2017.

The prospects for the future are in no way encouraging. The Trump presidency has confirmed that there is a link between political polarization and individuals’ authoritarian predispositions. Research has found that even respondents’ child-rearing values can predict their support for Trump. Mainstream media, which had already been losing public confidence over the years, has become another fault line in the battle across parties. Confidence in the press, which had long been chipped away among Republicans, has now extended even to true independents, whose feelings toward journalists are now closer to the floor set by Republicans than to the ceiling set by Democrats.

The pandemic has only served to exacerbate the erosion of trust, as well as deepen the partisan divide. Democrats and Republicans found new topics on which to disagree, including the role of testing, the threat posed by the virus, and the effectiveness of social distancing measures and other restrictions. It is yet unclear whether fear serves to further undermine trust, or whether it is something we can all rally around, like we often do after national tragedies and catastrophes. It appears more likely thus far that the degree of fear is insufficient to overcome political and affective differences.

Even more enduring than the pandemic, continued demographic shifts may further drive the country apart politically, especially as it transitions from a majority-white to a more pluralist multi-ethnic society. Not only have we witnessed an abandonment of democratic norms, but this fading commitment to democracy appears to be largely attributable to ethnic antagonism.

Drawing the Battlefronts (and Buffer Zones)

I fear that the sketch I have drawn is far from rosy, but lest a reader despair as much as I did while writing it, it might be helpful to look for some silver linings amidst all the doom and gloom. Here, I will limit myself to briefly outlining three ways we can address these problems without jumping off the ledge, and in so doing hopefully contribute to the antiwar movement Vallier proposes. I hope we can expand on what different fronts of the antiwar movement might look like in the discussion to follow.

Any political reform advocated and pursued in the protection of liberty should be aimed at making institutions less powerful and intrusive. Decentralization of power is an obvious prescription to emerge from this treatment, but it is not always easy to accomplish. Vallier cautions against choosing sides. He is right, although I think a more proactive reformulation is that we must choose sides: both of them. If Vallier is correct that both sides are converging toward illiberalism, then we must find ways to help both of them reverse course.

A first step toward accomplishing this is understanding that most people love their liberties. They may not always behave in a manner consistent with these preferences, but even those who protested and rioted across American cities last year, or those who stormed the Capitol last month, largely thought they were doing so in defense of their liberties. The fact that they are willing to employ such illiberal means in a twisted pursuit of their liberties suggests that their mistake lies in blindly following their leaders.

Because voters are generally close to each other ideologically, we can isolate the leadership as the cause of the problem. If polarization indeed results from leaders taking polar positions on issues and partisans following them, we may at least conclude that polarization is not so much an attitudinal feature of the electorate as it is a reflection of elite behavior. If we could find a way for leaders to oppose one another less, then Americans would likely follow. For example, if we could incentivize leaders to frame political discourse as deliberative consensus-seeking instead of as conflictual debate, we might begin to reprogram individuals’ motivated reasoning and information processing.

Vallier is also likely correct in suggesting that the executive branch has become too powerful relative to other branches. The presidency frequently abuses its bully pulpit to concentrate power around the unitary executive, and as things stand, the stakes are too high.

However, empowering the legislative branch to balance the power of the executive is neither desirable from a normative standpoint nor viable from a practical standpoint. After all, the only branch that Americans generally distrust more than the executive is the legislative.

Extreme political polarization has only served to incentivize inactivity on the part of members of Congress, resulting in even greater frustration on the part of the electorate. To be sure, there is value in gridlock, but too much gridlock leads to frustration.

As “Fenno’s paradox” illustrates, while Americans generally hate Congress as a whole, they tend to hate their own member of Congress a lot less. Once again, this suggests that finding ways to decentralize power may be critical to reversing many of these unfortunate trends. We tend to fear and distrust the foreign, the distant, and the unknown, and come to accept and often even like it once we come to know it up close. This is why Americans are generally more trusting of their local government than their state government, and more trusting of their state government than their national government. It is also why xenophobia and opposition to immigration are strongest in the areas with the fewest immigrants.

To be clear, declining trust and social capital, political polarization, and democratic backsliding are not unique to the United States. My own research in democratizing contexts suggests that a worthwhile approach separate from reforming institutions might involve empowering individuals instead. At the macro-level, even empowering civil society often fails to produce tangible democratizing outcomes, and strong civil society does not necessarily result in strong political institutions. Civic activities likewise do not help build political trust.

This is less grim than it sounds. What I observed is that in democracies in transition, civic society does not translate into political trust because civic societies have largely replaced the less-efficacious state. Thus, high social trust and social capital, including civic engagement, are not predictive of political engagement because political engagement is largely futile. Thus, an internal locus of control, or the attribution of outcomes to one’s own behavior, steers citizens away from polarized national politics and toward their immediate surroundings and local communities instead.

Practically, this research means that relying on politically educated, knowledgeable citizens is not the guaranteed way to rebuild political trust. In fact, we might be best served leaving them well enough alone, especially if the supply side of politics fails to live up to the demand side. In the U.S. context, it is sometimes hard to tell which is of a worse quality, but let us hope that it is the supply side indeed. Increasing political efficacy and political awareness without improving institutions risks amplifying existing frustration, but this effect can be alleviated by refocusing citizens toward their communities and localities.

Finally, as Steven Horwitz points out in his wonderful and much more optimistic response essay to Vallier, while politics may often appear pervasive and always appear toxic, we as members of society interact with one another in countless extrapolitical ways. The more we can divorce ourselves from our politics when interacting with one another, the more we will come to see that our political attitudes never belonged there in the first place, and the more we will come to value and benefit from one another.

Markets are one of the most powerful venues for these kinds of apolitical interactions, but they are not the only one. Most people are united in their affection for their cities and states, in their support of common sports teams, their desire to give their children the best education possible, and their love of Beyoncé and Tom Hanks, so long as these are not mixed with politics. Even if these other venues tend to provide less anonymity than does the market, it helps to realize that there is no need to inject politics into domains where it does not belong – which ought to be most of them.

The Conversation

Reputation Processes and Social Trust

One theme that appears in the essays in this symposium is that it’s not clear exactly what we can do about declining social trust. Even in my own more optimistic view about just how much social trust we have and take for granted each day, I will admit that I don’t have any silver-bullet ideas for dealing with what I think is a genuine decline in social trust in the political world. As I argued in my first response, I think it can’t hurt to continually remind people about how often we do, in fact, trust and interact beneficially with people who may well have a range of views we find odious. I have a few more thoughts that I’ll get to toward the end of this reply, but even those I do not hold with great confidence.

One major problem is that there is not a powerful and straightforward mechanism for punishing those who violate or reduce social trust. Compare, for example, how trust plays out in markets. Another form of trust we rely on frequently in markets is how many strangers we allow into our homes. We don’t think about it this way when it happens, but it is somewhat odd that we let perfect strangers into our homes to repair our plumbing or to install a new appliance or to protect us against insects and other creatures. Paul Seabright raises this question in his wonderful, and underappreciated, book The Company of Strangers. Seabright argues that many of the institutions of the modern world, especially in the market, have the effect of turning strangers into honorary friends. Put differently, those institutions create ways for us to signal trustworthiness to each other. In the case of the plumber, the use of a uniform, a truck with a company logo, and the various ways firms contact us to expect someone all serve as signals of trust. (My home repair company emails me a picture of the person who is coming out to do the work.) We would be rightfully wary if a company’s repair person showed up unexpectedly, driving an unmarked vehicle, and wearing a t-shirt and jeans and carrying few tools. It’s also why we tend to prefer organized firms over independent actors for such tasks, all else equal.

But more important is what would happen if that company’s repair person behaved inappropriately while doing the work, thereby violating the trust that was otherwise signaled. In the world of the twenty-first century, we have so many ways to convey back to the company that this person behaved poorly, from directly contacting the firm to using social media like Yelp or Angie’s List or others to leave a bad review, to a simple Facebook or Twitter post. One of the often-overlooked advantages of markets is that profit-seeking leads firms to care about their reputations and to respond, and to do so quickly, when that reputation is threatened. (Yes, this can be taken too far, and I will come to the role of “cancel culture” later.) It is not clear that a similar set of incentives and effective process of response exists when it comes to undermining trust in large-scale social and political institutions. Profit-seeking firms also have ways to rebuild trust when they make mistakes or their reputations are wrongly harmed. How many people remember the “Chicago Tylenol Murders” from 1982? How large-scale institutions rebuild or recover is more tricky. In fact, as the events of January 6th suggest, some acts that undermine social trust in large-scale institutions might well lead to social rewards for some participants. These sorts of perverse incentives are particularly concerning.

A related problem is that politics in particular has become an arena of such high stakes that the incentives to win at any cost are greater than ever before. The fiscal and cultural resources and power that come with political victory, especially winning the presidency in a world of executive orders and octogenarian Supreme Court justices, are perceived to be so great that playing by the rules is for suckers. Combine that with the issues about information, social media, and the decline of the elite that Martin Gurri raises, and we see the amplification of extreme voices and positions that has characterized political discourse for the last decade or two. This is about the worst context possible for maintaining social trust or punishing attempts to destroy it. Extremism and win-at-any-cost strategies pay off.

So what, if anything, can we do? I think we need to recognize the ways in which nonpolitical institutions can serve as a substitute for the weak reputation effects in modern American politics. For example, the decision by Twitter to shut down President Trump’s account and the decision by Amazon to enforce their terms of service with Parler are both examples of the ways in which markets and civil society can punish those who attempt to violate large-scale norms and institutions and thereby undermine social trust. Yes, those on the right will say that this is “cancel culture” and that such actions themselves show political bias and undermine social trust. I don’t like the term “cancel culture” because it is too broad and has quickly become an attempt to ward off all kinds of legitimate criticism. However, the idea that some people or actions are beyond the pale and that we should engage in some form of shunning seems to me to be valid. What exactly is “beyond the pale” will always be contested, but actions that undermine trust in the foundational and framework institutions that make other forms of productive social interaction possible would qualify.

Modern American society is polycentric with respect to forms of social power. We need to figure out how to deploy institutional structures outside of politics to serve as countervailing forces when political actors undermine social trust. It will be tricky to find the right balance between punishing those who deserve it and avoiding the excesses that are associated with more dubious acts of “cancel culture.” However, if liberalism (and not just classical liberalism) is to survive the combined forces of social media disinformation, partisan extremism, and a global pandemic, we’re going to have to give it our best shot.

Some Replies on Classical Liberalism, Social Trust, and the Way Forward

Let me begin by thanking Steve, Martin, and Irina for commenting on my essay. Steve and Irina write mostly in agreement, though Irina is more pessimistic than I am. While I have grown more pessimistic about our ability to restore trust and reduce polarization since the events of 1/6, I wrote the essay in part to try to get classical liberals to join the fight to avert a grim future. We fought for freedom before when all seemed lost, and we can do so once more. And I agree with Steve and Irina that we should try decentralized and individualized solutions to the difficulties I discuss.

I’d like to focus, however, on Martin’s questions, since he challenged my arguments most directly. First, by a classical liberal, I mean someone for favors the market economic system and limited government, along with democratic governance, at least for instrumental reasons, and some kind of modest welfare state, at least in the short run. A classical liberal is also someone who favors the traditional liberal freedoms of speech, press, and religion. (Since I’m writing for Cato Unbound readers, I thought I could take the meaning of “classical liberalism” for granted.)

My essay was also written based on my arguments in my pair of recent books—Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society (OUP 2019), and Trust in a Polarized Age (OUP 2020), the former focusing on the political philosophy of social trust, the latter approaching trust from other philosophical, political, and economic perspectives together. In the books, my goal is to identify the nature and sources of social trust and how a pluralistic society may seem to threaten social trust, but can in fact support it.

The central problem in both books is that, as our disagreements grow, we are increasingly tempted to attribute disagreements to what I call the illusion of culpable dissent. We often mistakenly blame others for disagreeing with us when we cannot understand their views. We cannot imagine affirming those views in good faith and in an informed way.

I think the illusion of culpable dissent is natural to us, and is exacerbated by high polarization, especially affective polarization, as well as low levels of social trust.

My fear, in both books, is that polarization and social trust are in a feedback loop, with polarization increasing distrust and vice versa. Elites are an understated part of the story, as they are the most polarized, and they are driving polarization and polarized distrust in most of the populace.

My solution is a form of classical liberalism—the protection of constitutional rights to freedom of association, private property, economic security, democratic governance, and elections. These rights can be justified to different reasonable points of view, giving each person moral reason to comply with them in the eyes of others. In this way, persons with diverse values can follow rules that allow us to trust one another despite our differences. Liberal rights motivate trustworthy behavior based on the right kinds of reasons, which motivates social trust under diverse conditions.

In Must Politics Be War?, I define a state of war as a society with low social trust in a wide array of central social norms. A state of moral peace occurs when we have high social trust in those norms. Low trust may not lead to violence, but not even Hobbes thought that the state of war occurs only when violence occurs. In my view, both Locke’s and Hobbes’s states of war (which don’t get as much play as their states of nature) can be characterized as a condition where different groups do not trust one another to follow basic norms of cooperation. When I discussed a war-like politics, I should have said that we are in a state-of-war-like politics, where our society is a kind of social tinderbox.

As noted, I stress in both books that what justifies trust is trustworthiness, and all of my institutional solutions are grounded in using liberal rights practices to encourage and display trustworthiness to others.

Martin and I agree on a great deal. I hope this little essay clarifies his questions and grants his wishes. I think Martin, Steve, Irina, and I are largely in agreement. A rare thing.

Trust, Politics, and Meaning

The perceptions and observations of this issue take me back in memory a very long time, to when I was a young Cuban kid newly arrived on our shores. Here is what I found most remarkable about my new classmates and friends: they never spoke about politics. It was, to them, an unutterably boring subject. American life at the time revolved almost entirely around the private sphere – family above all, but also church, school, sports, and community organizations like Masonic lodges and chambers of commerce. These institutions held our attention because they were near and real. The federal government, in those far-off days, seemed more of a remote abstraction, like the flag. You pledged your allegiance, then turned to real life.

It is not a paradox to say that the private sphere engendered trust in the system, because at that level the system was composed of friends and neighbors who responded sympathetically to personal triumph or need. But it was much more than that: it was a producer of meaning. The old extended family was the audience for the drama of individual life. Church and synagogue provided stories of exaltation and consolation, as well as moral guidance. Local clubs like Masonic lodges and sports leagues were small ponds in which all who joined could feel like very large frogs.

When national politics came up in the conversation, the subject was addressed by citizens whose sources of personal meaning and dignity were found elsewhere. Tolerance and compromise were possible, because the stakes were small. Today, of course, the opposite is the case: national politics are treated like a life-or-death struggle. As always in human affairs, the causes of this radical alteration are many and complex – allow me to dwell on just two.

The first is the hollowing out of the private sphere. The big extended family is an endangered species; even the immediate family is likely to be broken. Attendance at religious institutions is in precipitous decline. The same is true of membership in lodges, chambers of commerce, and sports leagues. We are proud of our individualism, and we repudiate as obsolete those relations and structures that impinge upon it. But the flip side of that repudiation is a terrible loneliness, a dearth of meaning, and a constant anxiety about personal worth. When we turn our attention to politics, we do so from a posture of existential hunger.

At this moment of weakness, the web came along to tempt us with a vision of all the kingdoms of the world. Any member of the public could be “followed” by millions. Ordinary people could dispute online with presidents and scholars. Here was meaning and community beyond our most distempered dreams. The lure of the web is its massive warping of distance: objects below the horizon appear close at hand. As the door to the highest level of politics seemed to open for all, it was inevitable, I suppose, that so many of us would stream in bearing a heavy burden of private needs and expectations.

But the web is also a mangler of identity. Communities of millions can be entered only at the cost of a severe conformism. At every turn, on every platform, the organic you must be mutilated to join hands with the digital them. The WallStreetBets subreddit that recently roiled the financial markets should have been an investment information site: instead it was a tribe, a war-band, hedged by identity markers and ritual jargon. If you stray from the accepted folkways, you will be cast out. If you attract enough hostile attention, you will be – reputationally, to be sure – burned at the stake. So it has come to pass that the public, gathered in narrow, sectarian digital communities, driven by emotions that were once fulfilled elsewhere, now seeks to play in the great game of politics and demands from participation what politics can’t possibly deliver.

I have often said that the collapse of trust in our political institutions is in large part earned. Democratic government and politics must be reconfigured if they are to adapt to the digital age. But there’s another side to this story. If we place an immense weight of personal expectations on democracy, the system will always fail relative to those expectations, and failure will inspire ever-increasing levels of frustration, anger, and distrust. The last desperate attempt to convert politics into a creed produced the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. I would hope that no one wishes to head in that direction today.

Liberalism wasn’t structured to grapple with this danger. It’s a purposefully prosaic and procedural business that emerged out of the wars of religion to negotiate peace among multiple paths to salvation. Liberalism is the politics of adulthood: no creed is imposed from above, but individuals are expected to wrestle with their doubts, seeking answers in a society rich in systems of meaning and belief. When society is hollow and political life becomes infantilized, liberalism has little to say.

The need for change thus forks in dramatically different directions. Part of it concerns the reconfiguration of government. That sounds hard but is relatively simple, and may come about organically as a generation born to the web shapes government to its own tastes.

Part of the change is personal and concerns our expectations of politics and our definition of a meaningful life. Individuals must abandon the empty dream that they can “save the earth” and try instead to serve and assist the people in their private sphere, where the human adventure, the endless search for meaning and decency, must necessarily play out. This is a moral question – a matter for the individual will. All each of us require to accomplish change is to do it. That sounds simple, but – as anyone who has tried to lose weight can attest – is extraordinarily hard.