A lot of us are struggling to remain optimistic in the current political climate. A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center indicates that the growing political divide may have an added impact...reduced trust in government and in each other.
The study found that 75% of Americans believe that trust in government is shrinking. Additionally, 68% feel that our trust in each other is also shrinking. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents in the study also reported that low trust in government makes it harder to solve problems; when asked about low trust in fellow Americans, that number grew to four out of five.
The problem of declining trust appears to go beyond government. In the 2018 analysis the Gallup organization, only 11% of the respondents have confidence in Congress. This in itself may not be surprising. Confidence in the US Congress has been extremely low for more than two decades.
But the Gallup report also showed low confidence in a number of other major institutions: television news (20%), the criminal justice system (22%), big business (25%), organized labor (26%), public schools (29%), banks (30%), the medical system (36%), and organized religion (38%).
The study showed the highest levels of confidence for the military (74%) and small business (67%) respectively.
Structural conflict and role of elected leadersThe issues surrounding reduced trust and confidence are interwoven with the policy differences between the two major political parties. There are deep differences in positions in a number of areas, including: helping people move out of poverty, strengthening the economy, protecting the environment, accessing healthcare, and managing the immigration system.
These types of policy differences (often referred to as structural conflict) are in reality quite normal. In addition to government, structural conflicts exist in organizations (e.g. labor-management differences) and communities (e.g. conflicts between minorities and police). The key is to find balance, respect and civility between the parties so that the structural conflict is manageable, leading to better mutual outcomes.
Sadly, today’s political debate is often devoid of civility ... certainly lacking balance or mutual respect. Social media as well as some traditional media organizations (those which take partisan positions) are also major contributors.
But, without question, elected leaders are a major factor. Studies on structural conflict indicate the important role of leaders in reducing conflict. The most important finding regarding the role of leadership is this: If leaders contribute to the structural conflict, or fail to take steps to address the conflict, the conflict will grow, often uncontrollably. In other words, all hell breaks loose. And in the resulting debate, we can find ourselves arguing over the symptoms of the conflict, essentially “debating the facets of hell”. There may be little dialog about how we got here and, more importantly, how we move out of this dynamic. Regarding the role of leadership, it is important to note that the failure to take action steps is a significant, serious contributor. Sadly, some leaders choose non-action in the hopes that the problems become resolved on their own. In the case of structural conflict, the problems simply will not resolve themselves.
Among other things, leaders can and should establish overriding, compelling goals that will benefit all parties; they can recognize collaboration and teamwork; they can take steps to address or remove the contributors to conflict. It should be also stated that despite the best efforts of determined leadership, structural conflict may be improved ... but not completely removed. And there will need to be an ongoing effort (some call it heavy lifting) by leadership just to maintain the improved condition.
We believe we can move forward Despite the challenges, as Americans, we believe we can move forward. The Pew Research study also notes that 84% of Americans feel it is possible to improve confidence in our government. Furthermore, 86% of Americans feel it is possible to improve confidence in each other.
It is important for elected leaders to take note of this. It is the essential ingredient in resolving conflict as well as averting or reducing the severity of future conflicts. Elected officials who choose to do the heavy lifting of leadership will have a better chance of being effective in their roles. Those who do not face the ongoing prospect of endlessly debating the facets of hell.