The Breakdown of Social Trusting

An American political framework might look like this:

One faction advocating that those with agency over others must recognize their responsibility and act in good faith, sustainably so, and make decisions that benefit not only themselves, but the broader society as a whole. This may include pursuing their own interests as competition driving development is an accompanying belief. That view holds that there should be little coercion required to accomplish that end and therefore limits on personal liberties only serve to stifle dynamism.

The other faction aims to identify asymmetries between groups that yield disproportionately high levels of agency for some, and disproportionately low for others. That group advocates for changes, through government or other social action, to the institutions that are responsible for the asymmetry in agency.

In theory, both factions should be able to exist with reasonable friction. Both sides believe that agency over one’s own outcomes is the goal. Both aim to enhance the benefits of agency. Both believe that agency comes with privilege and responsibility.

This framework is, of course, a naive one. It doesn’t really work that way, though it should. Naive frameworks are useful though. They help expose why a thing could be a way but isn’t. As best as I can tell, the application of the framework breaks down because of two assumptions that feed on each other and throw the balance of discourse off.

The first is that not all people behave with good intent towards society as a whole. The second is the lack of trust between factions that the first assumption yields.

When too many that behave outside the bounds of good societal intent assume agency over others, the levels of trust between factions lowers. The goal is for social trust to exist within a band of reasonable discourse. We’ll always believe that others are simply out for themselves or maybe for even worse nihilist causes. But we believe they don’t have enough power to drive the direction of society. Therefore our trust, though measured, stays within the acceptable band.

Both the appeal and the truly harmful characteristic of Trump-ism is that it aims to expose a reality that everyone is a fraud. And though flawed, the leader of the message is at least honest about it, and therefore can be the only trustable person.

This view perpetuates a toxic environment of distrust. Nothing can be trusted. Not the media. Not the intelligence community. Not the Justice Department. Not the courts. And not Congress. Though we already believed we couldn’t trust congress, the others are new. We’re now far outside our acceptable band of social trust. And so we shouldn’t be expected to function effectively as a free and open society.

The following belief is important:

Not everyone is a fraud. And few people rise to positions of power who care only for themselves and not a sustainable, harmonious society. They may get the details and actions wrong, but not the intent.

True or not, when we don’t believe that any more, it allows us to tolerate, in plain sight, those that don’t hold the standard. There is no positive end to a free and open society where we don’t have basic trust for those in power.

One question to ask is, what is the goal of sowing so much distrust?

An effectively functioning society can’t be the answer. So what is it?


8 thoughts on “The Breakdown of Social Trusting

  1. Hi Sean, I have no idea if you will get this email or not although I hope you do. I am a progressive that happened upon your blog and found your perspective and insights thoughtful even when I didn’t agree with your thinking. I read your emails and often clicked to read the rest of the blog. I may have missed the one where you discussed your decision to write more frequently – even daily. I don’t know if this was to create more of a presence on the web, another type of marketing for your consulting practice or a writing practice that requires you to get something on paper every day. So I don’t have the full picture for your increased number of blogs. And I may be a voice of one but I liked the longer less frequent posts better. They seemed more thought out and there was more detail in your analysis. The shorter more frequent don’t seem as powerful to me. In the past I almost always learned something or was found a provocative idea I hadn’t considered – not so much now. I hesitate to send this as unasked for feedback is seldom welcome. But I miss those longer ones. Your emails arrive with such frequency now that it feels kind of overwhelming. I also had my own consulting business for a number of years and know how challenging developing business can be. Maybe you are on exactly the right path now but I have appreciated your writing enough that I thought it worth the time to share my reactions to the change. Wishing you the best, Sharon Shoemaker

    On Sat, Aug 18, 2018 at 10:27 AM, Chartwell West wrote:

    > Sean Patrick Hughes posted: “An American political framework might look > like this: One faction advocating that those with agency over others must > recognize their responsibility and act in good faith, sustainably so, and > make decisions that benefit not only themselves, but the broade” >


  2. Have you read American Nations? Did I hear about it from one of your blogs? I’m about 75 pages into it and it’s one of those experiences of, “Why didn’t we learn THIS in school.”


    Sent from my iPad



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