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Lee Rasch: The nature of the American spirit

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Trust is important. The absence of trust can drive our actions or our inactions.

The last two decades have been a period of considerable change in an important democratic ideal: our trust in fellow Americans. A recent Pew Research study found that Americans generally agree that democratic ideals and values are important for the United States. Yet for the most part they believe the country is falling well short in living up to these ideals.

This “democratic deficit” translates to a growing and troubling public distrust in one another’s ability to make informed decisions about democratic leadership. In the study, 78% of respondents say that knowledgeable voters are very important to the United States. Yet when asked whether they believe “voters are knowledgeable about candidates and issues,” only 39% believe that to be the case today.

Only 39% of adults say they have confidence in the wisdom of their fellow Americans when it comes to making political decisions. Additionally, the PEW study points out that this lack of trust in each other’s ability to make well reasoned political choices is a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as 2007, that number was nearly 60%. This is quite a dramatic shift in a relatively short period of time.

The reduction in public trust began in 2007. The Great Recession likely played a part in this decline. The trust levels decreased to below 50% in 2010 and that pattern has continued to trend downward until where it is today.

This is concerning in many areas including the economic future of our country. When economists look at indicators for future economic growth, they look closely at consumer confidence. When consumers are concerned about the future, they curtail purchases, thus inhibiting economic growth.

Following that logic it would stand to reason that, if Americans lack confidence in the public’s political wisdom, they will become less engaged as citizens. While this is a legitimate concern, there are still some encouraging signs. Rather than sitting on the sidelines, some Americans are stepping up their political engagement with the intention of rebuilding public trust in political wisdom.

Many of these efforts share a common theme … the political process is not working as well as its should for all Americans. It needs fixing and people are rolling up their sleeves.

One notable coalition working toward this is BridgeAlliance.org. Formed in 2015, it is a comprehensive collaboration of organizations, each of whom is committed to promoting integrity in democratic principles in our country.

This alliance is comprised of 102 organizations, large and small. The efforts promoted by these organizations include: informing the electorate, bridging ideological divides, seeking cross-partisan solutions, addressing money and corruption in politics, empowering young Americans, facilitating citizen engagement and strengthening integrity in elections. They are doing some very creative and energetic things to support and improve our American democracy. Braver Angels, the Common Ground Committee, Fair Vote and Ballotpedia are a few examples of these organizations. Combined, the organizations under BridgeAlliance.org have well over one-half million followers.

It is particularly interesting to note that 66 of the 102 member organizations in BridgeAlliance.org were formed after 2010. In other words, during a time when the general public confidence in the political wisdom of fellow Americans was declining, many citizens were actually rising up in response! Rather than sitting on the sidelines and wringing their hands, they were taking action … and in no small numbers.

There is no doubt the obstacles they face are challenging. The old, entrenched political forces work hard to resist change. Yet perhaps, like me, you may find the work of this alliance to be encouraging and hopeful. In many ways, this is emblematic of the nature of the American spirit … believe in and promote the American ideal and don’t give up. All the more reason to join the effort.

Lee Rasch is executive director of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin. Visit leaderethicswi.org for more information on the group.

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