Hurrah for the Red, Purple and Blue!

Marjorie Taylor Greene recently said out loud (or more likely, a tweet) that we should just split the country into red states and blue states, let them go their separate ways,  and diminish the role of the central government—in other words, return to the Articles of Confederation which were our national governing document for 1781-89.  She raises the interesting question of how one defines a red or blue state and how stable that definition might be.  (Arizona definitely moved toward the blue end of the spectrum in 2020 and 2022  compared to previous years.)

Perhaps the best measure of a state’s collective political orientation would be statewide votes for president, governor and senator, because these elections are not affected by gerrymandering for the U.S. House and state legislative districts.  So let’s start with her home state of Georgia, which in the last two senate elections went blue (both senators being Democrats) while the Republican governor was recently re-elected and the Democratic presidential candidate won the popular and electoral vote.  I would call that bluish purple, with three of the four tests being Democratic.  And Georgia is not alone.

Wisconsin has a Democratic governor, one Democrat and one Republican in the US Senate, and voted for Biden.  That also makes them bluish purple like Georgia.  Vermont has a Republican governor, two senators who are more or less independent but both caucus with Democrats, and voted for Biden. Maine has a Democratic governor, a Republican Senator, an independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats, and voted for Biden. Virginia has a Republican governor at the moment (the predecessor was a Democrat) and two Democratic Senators, and voted for Biden.  North Carolina is reddish purple with a Democratic governor, two Republican Senators, and voted for Trump in 2020. 

Yes, there are states that are entirely red—my home state of South Carolina, Florida, Texas, North and South Dakota, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho.   And there are states that are entirely blue—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois. New Mexico, California. But they are not a monochrome. Within those red states there are blue people and within those blue state there are red people.  And increasingly, there are  many, many citizens who consider themselves independents and wish that the reds and blues would stop treating politics like warfare and rather accept it as an imperfect but useful way of making collective decisions.

Secession was not the answer in 1861. It still isn’t. Time to learn to live together with respect and an open mind.

What Voter Fraud?

On Tuesday, November 8th, in a fit of civic duty, I spent 14 hours from 6 am to 8 pm as a poll manager, which is less complicated than being a clerk (one of a few places where a clerk is the boss of managers!).  If you have any doubts about the security of your vote, sign up to be trained and serve at the polls just once and you will be enlightened.  The security precautions are awesome and the whole team pitches in to make sure that people have a good experience and are treated with respect.  At least, that’s how we run an election in South Carolina. Every ballot is accounted for, all tallies must match, and we worker bees have to witness the opening and closing o f the scanner that tallies and collects the votes.  For my part, I patiently explained from my station at the scanner what happens to your ballot, how it is tallied by the scanner and deposited in a safely guarded basket below to revisit in case of an audit.

 All signs and equipment are delivered before the crack of dawn and returned to the election office as soon as possible after the polls close. The seven seals of the Book of Revelation nothing to the number of seals are applied to every container and machine and we have to witness each unsealing and resealing.  I hope this safe, secure, and nonviolent election has put the fraudulent fraud claims and threats of violence to rest.

I spent the post-election day recuperating and watching the aftermath.  Democracy passed the test. I will never take it for granted again.

The Rise of the American Taliban

As an economist, I have been watching this drama unfold since the late 70s, although it began earlier—a deliberate effort to rouse the passions of people who felt marginalized by people of color, immigrants, non Christians, and women and wanted to “take their country back.”  Perhaps to 1861. This is the war (Civil war? War of the Rebellion? War Between the States? War of Northern Aggression?)  that is a fire still smoldering 167 years after it supposedly ended. So it’s been a long time coming. But it’s here, and the misogyny has just proved itself as powerful as the racism. The purpose of this concerted, well-funded effort was to distract citizens and voters fromt he growing inequiality, deterioration of public services, land lack of basic protections enjoyed in other advanced nations by blaming it on the current whipping boy–people of color, immigrants, refugees, imaginary socialists,, welfare queesns…

And I am angry, very angry.  I am the grandmother of four granddaughters of child-bearing age living in a red state.  They have been stripped of the rights that their mothers and grandmothers enjoyed. I was married in Connecticut before Griswold in 1968 made contraception legal there, but my husband and I cheerfully defied the law and no one cared.  It was legal to sell condoms for avoiding STDs and birth control pills to restore menstrual regularity, which were apparently epidemic among the tate’s citizens. These blue laws were like prohibition, driving what was legal in other states underground and making the sales and use of these products a little harder but no less prevalent. But today’s penalties are much more stringent, and legislators are looking to find every possible escape rout and to shut abortions and perhaps evetually contraceptiondown.

What can we do? 

  1. Most of my blog readers are South Carolinians.  Talk to your legislators, who will reconvene for a special session later in the fall.  Abortion is on the agenda.  Try to urge them to vote no or better yet, to soften the impact with more time and exceptions.  Look for ways to hold the putative fathers accountable with DNA tests and obligations (or in the case of rape or incest, legal penalties). If you are not from South Carolina, do what you can where you live to keep a woman’s right to choose alive.
  2. Seek out ways to support women seeking abortions if they need to travel.
  3. 3. Harness the power of the vote—in remaining primaries if your state hasn’t primaries already, in candidate events and putting those running on the spot about what they will and will not support (don’t let them do a mealy-mouthed Susan Collins on you).
  4. Help people register and get to the polls. Now what the registration deadlines are, what’s available in early voting and/or mail-in voting, how to find their ballot, and drive them to the polls.
  5. Take every opportunity to remind people of the Martin Niemoller quote on the rise of Naziism:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.Be aware that this court decision is part of a larger systemic effort to undermine democracy and replace it with an oligarchy of rich, greedy old white men! Yes, there are plenty of good, caring, compassionate old white men. I was married to one. But those are characteristics shared by the beneficiaries of cutting taxes and services, gerrymandering, enhancing minority rule, discouraging voting, and fomenting hatred against the “other.” And creating hare-brained theological justifications for forbidding abortion and contraception that are so out of touch with a Christianity of love, respect, compassion, and second chances, as well as with most other major religions.

Democracy is a fragile system that we take for granted and let fall  into disrepair.  Roe v. Wade overturned and the very unveiled threats in Thomas’s opinion should a clarion call for really stopping the steal—not just the attempted theft of the election but the attack on our human rights. It is of a piece with the plot to overturn the 2020 election.

I have hope that telemedicine and nonsurgical abortion with the 25 or so states that still think women and people of color and LGBTQ people are full fledged human beings.  I fantasize about he right of a woman to demand a DNA test for the putative father and use it to required financial support—unless it was rape or incest in which case there need to be criminal penalties. I find myself wondering if Native American sovereignty extends to developing abortion clinics on reservations. And I refuse to surrender to despair.  It is my country too. Any yours.

By What Authority?

Many years ago, Clemson University briefly hosted a visiting economics professor from Russia who had emigrated because he was Jewish and felt unwelcome there.  He visited some of our classes to talk about life under communism.  One student asked whether the people of the USSR didn’t want more freedom.  No, he said. I think most people prefer to be told what to do, think and believe. 

Surely not, I thought. Some people, yes, but not most. Maybe the Soviet Union is different,  having had little experience of anything but authoritarian governments. Bur psychological research confirms that there are people who are drawn to authoritarians, seeking out authority in religion, or customs, or laws. They stick to familiar gender roles and resist diversity—whether in race, politics, sexual or gender orientation, religion, or just about anything else. They gravitate to authority figures in politics, join cults, listen only to select media, and blindly follow doctors’ orders—even that last one is not always a good thing.  In response to authoritarians moving into silos and echo chambers, those of us who do not share their worldview are driven to seek safety and affirmation by building our own silos and listening only to our own echo chambers.

I (and I imagine my readers) tend to think that authority must be earned and tested against our own values and perceptions.  But reading Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy, I am apparently in a minority.  I like diversity.  I try to seek out and listen to  other viewpoints in order to reflect more deeply on my own.  The same is true of my family members and most of my close friends. But the facts suggest we are a minority, or at worst, a silent and ineffective majority attempting to hold back the tidal waves of history. Worldwide, authoritarian regimes are taking power and stamping out resistance once they gain it by whatever means, including stealing elections and gaining control of the media. Emmanuel Macron and Volodymyr Zelenskyy are the exceptions, not the rule.

The division of society into  liberal-conservative, Republican-Democrat, religious-secular, and other binary categories is quite different from  this particular tension between authoritarians and libertarians. I do not use the term libertarian in it more recent sense of pro-free market and anti-government, but rather in the sense of questioning authority and looking for common ground between two extremes. I describe myself as both pro-life and pro-choice, pro-market and pro-government, each with their particular strengths and weaknesses and more useful as partners than opponents.  I look with sympathy and gratitude on those Republicans who are pro-free market but anti-authoritarian like Susan Collins. Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney.

I am somewhere on the spectrum from pessimism to hope to optimism between the latter two. My inborn optimism has retreated to hope. But theologian Joanna Macy reminds us that hope by itself is not worth much unless it is activist hope.  Pessimism is just giving up.  Optimism is the unjustified belief, like Dr. Pangloss in Candide, that “all is [or will be} for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Active hope is the most powerful response. Those of us who truly believe in democracy have to earn it by resistance and support.  We need to be “woke” not just to the sufferings of the oppressed but to the very real threats to tear down what protections they already have in our laws, our courts, our constitution that are now all under attack.

Where is the resistance? In the 1950s (actually 1949) there was Orwell’s 1984. In the1960s there was a Broadway play by Ionescu called Rhinoceros.  Each cast member gradually turned into a rhinoceros, following the herd, trying to conform. In the 1970s, it was The Stepford Wives .Then the anti-authoritarianism that is another deep current in American culture turned to folk music and sitcoms on the wave of civil rights, the women’s movement, and environmentalism. Since 1980, however, the tide has steadily turned, to push back,the fragmenting a society, culture and economy that had previously been perceived (inaccurately) as a unified nation (or plantation) peacefully overseen by old wealthy white men.

Where and how do we begin to revive the resistance?  Free and fair elections historically have been the most common casualty of the rise of authoritarianism around the world,aided by control of the media.T

here is a rich array of electoral tools forged in the Jim Crow era and enhanced by modern technology and gerrymandered state legislatures to suppress the vote, purge the rolls, limit access to the polls, discourage mail in ballots, and target those voters least likely to support their party and its candidates—poor, people of color, young people. Carol Anderson’s One Person, No Vote offers, a powerful account of these methods of undermining democratic elections in the last 50 years .  But there are also stories of hope. Anderson tells the story of one Native American community that resisted efforts to keep them from voting, with election officials using as a pretext the  lack of suitable IDs and mailing addresses.  A labor-intensive volunteer effort overcame those obstacles, provided everyone with a legal street address, ensured that tribal IDs were accepted, and reclaimed their right to vote.

What can you do to push back against the tide?

Who Speaks for Me?

I am a moderate Democrat, living in South Carolina.  We don’t have party representation, so I can’t prove it, but while I find much to admire in respect in a more conservative Republican position and much to appreciate in the left wing of my own party, I know my identity.  Based on results of 2018  gubernatorial(McMaster/Smith)  and 2020 senate (Graham/Harrison) races, South Carolina is about 55 percent Republican and 45 percent Democratic, although it varies depending on the candidates and the turnout.

The state, like all states, has two senators. It has seven House representatives,  currently six Republicans and one Democrat, although we did have a brief two years of 5-2 when Democrat Joe Cunningham won an unexpected victory in 2018. If our delegation in Washington was representative of the people of South Carolina, it would consist of one senator from each party and four Republicans and three Democrats in the house.  (We did have a very long period when the state had Republican Strom Thurmond and Democrat Fritz Hollings in the Senate, but that was in the distant past.)

Ah, you think, this is a diatribe about gerrymandering. Not really.  For one thing, the Senate is immune to gerrymandering, unless you think we should also redraw state lines very 10 years based on population. The idea of one person, one vote is not well served by having equal representation in the Senate for both California and Wyoming, both Texas and Delaware.  A majority of the U.S. senators currently serving were elected by 43.5 percent of the voters. So, while I would love to see one senator from each party representing the state I adopted 55 years ago, it is not going to happen. 

I am thinking about the House.   Gerrymandering may enhance the over-representation of the majority party, but the real fly in the political ointment is the winner take all structure of electing members of Congress.  At the local level, like most of our cities, we elect a city council with staggered terms, three every two years, mayor every four years.  The elections re nonpartisan, but they could just as well be partisan.  They key is that the candidates do not represent a particular part of the city—they all run against everyone else, each voter gets to vote for three, and the top three get elected. What if we did that with Congress? After all, the member of Congress from House District Three, where I live, does not just represent the interests and concerns of the northwest corner of the state, he represents our state on national matters. What If I could vote for all seven members of Congress instead of one? My chances of getting more than one member of the U.S. House whose views were closer to my own and my fellow 45 percent of South Carolina voters would be a lot better.  And we wouldn’t have to go through redrawing Congressional district lines every ten years!

Two ideas have been floating around out there for decades and have gained some traction to address this concerns in some races, although not yet for Congress.  In a few states, notably California, they have what has been nicknamed a jungle primary with multiple candidates for, say, the state legislature.  The top two candidates then go forward to the general election. Suppose you, like me, were a moderate Democrat in a heavily Republican district. If I am sure  that a Democrat will not get to the ballot in November, I might vote for the more centrist Republican so that I am more nearly represented. Very often in districts that are strongly Republican or strongly Democratic, the resulting general election will offer a choice between  two candidates of the same party representing different wings of their party, perhaps a moderate versus a liberal Democrat or a moderate versus a conservative Republican.

Another idea that people are just waking up to is ranked choice voting, which has been used in Maine for some time.  It got a lot of attention when it was used in the New York City Democratic primary for mayor. Voters rank their choices. If no one emerges with a majority from counting just firs choice votes, the vote counters drop the lowest ranking candidate and redistribute those votes to the voters’ second choices.  And so on, until someone gains a clear majority.  No runoff, and the outcome represents  a better understanding of what voters really want. Right now, there is a push on to call a Constitutional Convention.  I am wary of that effort because the nation is deeply divided and none of us from far right to far left has any idea what might be changed. But if I could change just one thing, I would rethink the way we elect the House of Representatives to make it truly representative.

Read This Book (Eventually)

Since many of my new followers were persuaded to join my blog world as a way to help get my next book published, I thought I would share this excerpt from the prologue.

How, my oldest daughter asked, can you call yourself passionately moderate? I thought you were a liberal.  Well, yes, I answered, my personal policy preferences are more on the liberal side. Universal health care, a woman’s right to reproductive choice, a tax system that doesn’t favor the wealthy, affordable college and affordable housing…the list goes on. But I realize that a sizeable chunk of my city, state, and nation subscribes to a different set of priorities and preferences, overlapping in some cases and diametrically opposed in others.  Even if my views were those of the majority, which they are in some cases, I do not want to impose them on a frustrated and probably angry minority.  I am willing to compromise, to settle for the good or even the good enough for now rather than holding out for the very best.

My passion for moderation is a passion for process, not for outcomes.  To practice moderation as a commitment to good process, you have to let your inner Buddha guide you in letting go of attachment to outcomes. I do believe that in most cases that good processes are more likely to lead to good outcomes. Not best outcomes. Not perfect outcomes.  Just outcomes that are steps in the right direction, or good enough for now.

I am passionate about openness to compromise, the give and take that means most citizens do not get exactly what they want personally but may get a move in the right direction, an improvement on the status quo. That passion for process makes me a liberal in theory but and a moderate in practice. At the moment, moderates seem to be endangered species in both political parties.  At the same time ,registered voters in droves have been abandoning the two major parties to declare themselves independents–and therefore probably moderates. Being passionately moderate is our best hope for the survival of our society, our nation, our democracy, depending on people being willing to accept less than what they really want and to do it graciously and with reciprocity.

Where did this way of experiencing the world come from? Certainly not from my rock-ribbed New England Republican upbringing. It started in college a lifetime ago when I decided to major in economics. I taught at Clemson University for 30 years, specializing in state and local public finance and working on developing public policy..  Retiring early, I went to seminary to get a degree in Theological Studies with the intention of focusing on ethics. I had no further career plans, but that additional master’s degree did lead to a second career, also at Clemson University.  I had been a senior fellow at Clemson’s the Strom Thurmond Institute since 1984, doing public policy analysis while still teaching in the economics department. While I was commuting to seminary in Atlanta, the Institute was launching an interdisciplinary doctoral program in Policy Studies. I was invited to teach ethics and public policy as well as political economy and public policy to doctoral students in the Policy Studies program. Although I taught traditional ethics—utilitarianism (the foundation of economic theory), Kantian ethics, and social contract, my head and heart quickly found their shared home in virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics, originating with Aristotle and reshaped into Christian language by Saint Thomas Aquinas, has experienced a revival in recent decades.  It is an ethic of moderation, each virtue occupying a center spot between the voices of the virtue’s extreme and its opposite.  But I did not abandon my utilitarian ethics that underlie economics, pointing toward policies based on moderation, compromise, the second best, the good enough. Both utilitarian ethics and mainstream economics can play a useful role in promoting the common good.

The other strand in my adult life that led to writing this book is 53 years as a member and frequently leader in the local and state League of Women Voters. Committed to citizen participation in government, transparency and accountability, free and fair elections, and making every voter count, this fine organization also spoke to both my head and my heart. The League is always open to compromise on anything other than its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusiveness and its firm belief in non-partisanship, which makes it possible to work both sides of the aisle in both election management and legislative policy.

And yes, there was also the women’s movement in general.  I am descended from strong women on both sides of my family. I am the mother of three grown daughters and four nearly grown granddaughters. For their sake, and their age mates sake, I want to preserve, protect and defend about democracy and learning to dwell together in peace as a legacy toward which  I might be able to make some small contribution, to leave them a more just, healthy and sustainable world.. I invite the reader to join me on that path.


Being a Good Citizen

2020 offered us a crash course in how our federal government works, or at least how it is supposed to work.  Certainly we all were introduced to parts of the Constitution and the electoral process that we never thought about.  Certifying an election. Curing mail- in ballots. Drop boxes, signature verification, and witness signatures. Not only did we learn a lot about elections, we also now know more about the three ways to remove a president from office (four, counting electing someone else)—impeachment, the 25th amendment, and the 14th amendment.

It is my earnest hope as a 53-year member of the League of Women Voters that the events of 2020 inspired us all to becoming better citizens—more aware and more involved.  Democracy dies in darkness.  It is more threatened by the indifference of the majority than the violent anger of one minority or another. Since it’s still early in the new year, let me invite you to practice five essential civic virtues that are part of the privilege and responsibility of being an American citizen.

1. Pragmatism is my favorite civic virtue, probably because I spent 15 years teaching in a public policy program. According to Aristotle, virtues lie at the golden mean between their opposites and their extremes.  The opposite of pragmatism is absolutism, while the extreme is anything goes, a political form of indifference or apathy.  The best is often the enemy of the good. Or the good enough.  Beware of candidates who stand for absolutes.  Barry Goldwater learned that in 1964 when he declared that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.  He carried five states. Sometimes the best we can do is to move policy a bit farther in the right direction.

2.   Pragmatism and its twin sister, compromise, are one form of acceptance and respect, which is the second civic virtue.  But acceptance and respect goes beyond pragmatism to being sure that everyone is heard before a compromise is made. All lives matter, but especially the ones that haven’t seemed to matter in the past. In the 19th century and into the 20th black and women’s lives didn’t matter enough.  More recently, we have included LGBTQ people, native Americans and immigrants.  We are also called to include those who feel left behind by a society of rapid change and concentration of wealth, and those on both ends of the political spectrum who feel suppressed and unheard, who feel that their free speech and freedom of religion rights are being trampled.  Listening, not just to those with whom we agree but those who see the world differently, is an essential practice in both private and public life.

2. The third civic virtue is honesty, integrity, transparency—whatever you call it, truthfulness is a critical civic virtue for maintaining or restoring trust in our society and our government. Faith or trust in institutions crumbles when there is no honesty, no disclosure, or worse, spread of misinformation, a culture of falsehood. It is the responsibility of public officials to practice honesty in all forms, and it is the responsibility of citizens to seek it out, test its plausibility, and demand honesty and transparency.  That includes supporting a free press and listening to a variety of media voices, not just the ones on your side of the political fence.

3.  Fairness, justice, and equality are a package civic virtue that  pervades every public issue, every program, every institution to provide equal access to the common goods of life.  Justice, fairness, and equality are not just equal treatment under law, but equal opportunity, equal respect, and equal access to the good things of life. Equality in access to opportunities and employment, to health care and housing. Justice in equal treatment for equal offenses and appropriately unequal treatment for lesser and greater offenses. Fairness in the distribution of resources among competing groups and interests.

5. Responsibility or diligence (or civic engagement) means committing to do your share of the work of public pace in ways that use your gifts to make your city, state, or nation a better place.  I am so proud of my oldest daughter and my youngest granddaughter who took four hours of online training and then worked a 12 hour day as poll workers in the November  election. Sammi, who just turned 16 two days before the election, served at the polls along with seven of her classmates.  They give me hope for the next generation.

Responsibility means voting, listening to candidates, following legislation, letting officials from president and members of Congress down to city councils and school boards what your concerns are and why they should vote in a particular way. It means paying attention and engaging with fellow citizens to try to make a better, more nurturing, more sustainable world for ourselves and generations to come.

It’s still January.  Not to late to make a New Year’s resolution. If is five is too many, start with #5 — civic engagement– and let it lead you to the other four in how you assert your citizenship as a duty, a right, and a privilege.

Trust Part 2

This past week was an encouraging one for restoring and affirming trust in our governing institutions.  I worked at the polls with people of different political persuasions, but there was no partisanship.  I did discover that one of the other team members supported Biden and another supported Trump, but it did not enter into their work of enabling voters to participate in the process.  We were a team working on a task.

The same has been true in states around the country, especially including Georgia. In that state, the electoral infrastructure is entirely under Republican control, but the vote counting was carried out with diligence, caution, and integrity, even though the outcome was not for their preferred candidate. The threatened intimidation of voters at the polls and violence in the streets if President Trump was not re-elected did not materialize. The nation is remarkably calm in the aftermath of the election.

Now that it is clear that Joe Biden is going to be our new president, it is time to put the rhetoric and divisiveness behind us and learn to trust each other again.  Whichever side you were on, reach out to someone who voted differently.  Commit to being engaged in politics, looking for candidates who will tread a centrist path, avoiding the extremes of both parties.

Authoritarian governments are built on suspicion, distrust, division, nonnegotiable positions.  Democratic governments are built on trust, mutual respect, and compromise.  Democracy prioritizes good process over “good” outcomes.  Goodness of  process means impartiality, fairness, transparency, and integrity.  Goodness of outcomes is in the eye of the beholder.

If you believe in democracy, if you are willing to trust the good intentions of your fellow citizens, find a way to help make it work.

In God We Trust–Who Else?

Faith is a virtue, but it is also word with multiple meanings.  Belief, trust, and loyalty are the most common ones.  Saint Paul’s use of the Greek word pistis is often translated as allegiance or loyalty, while the Latin version (credo) has come to mean belief (as in creeds).  These meanings are  not mutually exclusive.  However, to the extent that people interpret the term belief in a religious context as a set of statements about reality that they are asked to accept as factual truths, trust may be a more useful translation of faith as one of the core attitudinal virtues.

Loyalty is more a behavior than an attitude and is somewhat neutral as a potential virtue, because one can be loyal to something that is harmful or destructive. Our nation is currently deeply divided by mutual mistrust in politics, in part fostered and nurtured by individual and groups in furtherance of their own agenda.  In particular, they cultivate loyalty to their own group and distrust of everyone else—which supports the assertion that loyalty is not always a virtue. For our civic purposes, trust rather than belief or loyalty is the most useful interpretation of the virtue called faith.

Trust begins by listening to your gut, your instincts, but it does not end there.  There is also that all-important verify part when it comes to practicing trust in community.  Whom do you trust to listen and respectfully disagree, opening your mind to other ways of thinking?  What sources of information are credible? Just like active hope, cautious trust is an invaluable attitudinal virtue to cultivate and exercise for every aspect of our lives, not just governance. Democratic process is just “trust but verify” on a larger scale.  Knowing that there will be another election plays a key role in holding elected officials accountable to the public trust.

Trust lies somewhere between gullibility or naiveté as its extreme and paranoia or simply distrust as its opposite. Trust is not blind. Trust Allah but tie up your camel is an old Arab proverb. Former Soviet Leader Michael Gorbachev urged that both sides trust but verify. Doubt lies somewhere between trust and disbelief, and serves the purpose of calling us to ground trust in factual knowledge and demonstrated behavior by those people and institutions we have invited into positions of power and authority.

Trust is an important element of a nation’s social capital as described by Stiglitz in Measuring What Counts.  Social capital has been described as the glue that holds a society together—a shared history, sometimes a shared ancestry, holidays and celebrations, customs and usually language. Trust is a form of social capital that makes it possible to enter into agreements without spelling out all the details or constantly running to the courts to enforce them.  I recall a contract to build an addition on our home many decades ago.  The contract read, “build upstairs addition, $10,000.”  When he would tell me to go pick out light fixtures, or carpeting, I would say, “Do I pay for them?” He said  “No, it’s in the contract!” Contracts are less likely to be spelled out in detail in a small town where everyone knows everyone else.  I was a relative newcomer and had to learn the local customs, which were grounded in trust that was in turn grounded in networks of kinship and neighborhoods.

 Trust is not just an attitudinal virtue when it comes to civil society; it is also an asset that builds slowly but dissipates quickly. Inequality and diversity both can undermine trust in civic institutions., Inequality creates fear and resentment toward those who use money to gain power over others. Diversity encourages the creation of silos of people with a common heritage, and fosters distrust.

Trust begins by listening to your gut, your instincts, but it does not end there.  That’s the verify part.  Whom do you trust to listen and respectfully disagree, opening your mind to other ways of thinking?  What sources of information are credible? Just like active hope, cautious trust is an invaluable attitudinal virtue to cultivate and exercise for every aspect of our lives, not just governance. Democratic process is just “trust but verify” on a larger scale.  Knowing that there will be another election plays a key role in holding elected officials accountable to the public trust.

Historically, kings ruled by divine right, tyrants usurped authority and held on to it by force.  Only in modern times did the checks and balances of democratic constitutions provide a good reason to trust authority because no one had absolute power. In the United States, the division of authority among three branches of government and the sharing of power between the federal government and the states both offer constraints on abuse of power. But democracies have succumbed to dictatorship in the past. Our trust as citizens has been frequently undermined and challenged by social media and self-serving politicians who are careless of with the truth and opportunistic in the use of power, whose loyalty to party is placed above loyalty to the Constitution and the public. In a democracy, the survival of self-government or any other form of government depends on the faith, belief, and trust of its citizens in its elected leaders’ willingness and ability to govern in their interest.

Betrayal of that trust to seek to seize and retain power and/or exercise it for personal benefit will undermine authority. One of our biggest challenges as a nation is to affirm a “trust but verify” attitude as a habit of the heart that leads to respect for authority and for our fellow citizens,, civic participation, and willingness to compromise—all essential to the survival of democracy.

Historically, kings ruled by divine right, tyrants usurped authority and held on to it by force.  Only in modern times did the checks and balances of democratic constitutions provide a reason to trust authority because no one had absolute power. In the United States, the division of authority among three branches of government and the sharing of power between the federal government and the states both offer constraints on abuse of power. But democracies have succumbed to dictatorship in the past.

Our trust as citizens has been frequently undermined and challenged by social media and self-serving politicians who are careless of with the truth and opportunistic in the use of power, whose loyalty to party is placed above loyalty to the Constitution and the public. In a democracy, the survival of self-government or any other form of government depends on the faith, belief, and trust of its citizens in its elected leaders’ willingness and ability to govern in their interest.

In what or whom should we trust? Our instincts. Our doubts. And those voices and people an sources that have proved trustworthy in the past,whether they are scientists, public officials, personal friends, news sources, or communities and organizations that are open to other views and different perspectives. Trust is the foundation of democracy. Don’t let distrust take away our most precious possession as a nation.