In this last commentary before Election Day, I want to turn to Pete Buttigieg’s book Trust: America’s Best Chance which I cited in my first BidenBrief in July. It was released on October 6.
With perfect timing in anticipation of writing this piece, my wife, Penny Sebring, and I met alone with Pete on Friday in Chicago. His staff told us it was the first in-person meeting, unrelated to the Biden campaign, that he has had since the pandemic began. Lucky us.
Trust is a slender, but important book of the sort we have come to expect of Pete.
In the Introduction, he writes that “this book is written in the spirit of what comes next.” Hopefully, we are about to turn the page, but while that is not assured, the restoration of trust will remain a major challenge for years to come. From the Introduction:
I believe events have primed the 2020s to be a decade that determines our future. It will be in these years that we succeed or fail in advancing racial and economic justice, in stopping the worst effects of climate change, and in repairing the standing of our country around the world…
Trust is a modest contribution—a signpost more than a road map. Its purpose is to suggest that we pay more attention to the central role of trust…I believe we face a threefold crisis of trust in this country. Americans distrust the institutions on which we depend. Increasingly we distrust one another. And the world trusts America less than perhaps it ever has.
There is a large and wide-ranging popular and academic literature on the subject of trust…My approach here is more personal, and political….
I will suggest that trust is not less, but more, relevant and deserving of attention in times like ours, where various forms of credibility have been eroded, sacrificed, or even deliberately damaged. We live in a country whose most radical founding premise was that people could be trusted to govern themselves—and that the people, trusted in this way, would produce leaders who themselves are worthy of trust…
We don’t have another fifty years to sort this out. If present trends continue, we will be swamped by the consequences of climate inaction, democratic backsliding, racial inequity, and economic inequality. This time really must be different.
These pages, then, will ask readers to consider how much more frequently and deeply we rely on trust than we usually realize.
Pete argues that social, political, and economic trust have been eroded in our country since the 1960s, culminating in our current nightmare.
This erosion can be traced to LBJ’s and Nixon’s deceptions about the Vietnam War and Nixon’s Watergate-related misdeeds. But, Pete told us on Friday, he viewed those largely as failings of integrity. By contrast, the concerted efforts over the past forty years to sow distrust of our governmental institutions, of expertise, and of each other have been ideological undertakings of a much more sinister and dangerous kind. They began with Reagan, continued with Gingrich and many others, including Clinton, culminating ironically with a narcissist, not an ideologue, in the White House who exacerbated our climate of mistrust.
I will focus here on two of the most monumental potential casualties of declining trust: combating the coronavirus and climate change.
The virus and climate change pose many parallel challenges. Both are invisible. Addressing them requires collaboration, domestically and across the globe. They involve false choices, like their economic consequences. They disproportionately harm already-disadvantaged populations.
Here are some more excerpts from the book:
There are always…compelling reasons why it’s important to build and maintain trust. But these reasons are elevated at our moment in time, as we face a particular set of challenges – existential challenges…pandemic response and climate change…Such challenges can only be resolved if Americans can trust in their institutions and, just as importantly, if the world can trust in America…
Every pattern that drives distrust – from resentment toward the establishment to the loss of shared reality, from the legacy and reality of structural racism to the general fashion of American paranoia…played a role in creating one of the coronavirus’s most dangerous collective co-morbidities. Across America, like a compromised immune system, distrust itself proved a dangerous preexisting condition [emphasis added]…
Dealing with climate change has a great deal in common with confronting the coronavirus. To recognize the reality of climate change, and certainly to take any meaningful steps to reduce it, it is necessary for Americans to trust people we don’t know, who are working in fields most of us don’t understand. It requires that we make substantial, transformational changes and investments to reimagine our economy and our infrastructure, while also adapting our individual behavior and choices. All of this, which can be seen as both inconvenient and costly, is required in order to solve a problem whose fundamental physical cause—the behavior of atmospheric gases—is literally invisible. Like pandemic response, climate action requires that we trust in the science, and muster cooperation and coordination where it has often been scarce: among different levels of government, across the partisan divide, and throughout the international community.
In some ways, the climate challenge is an even harder one in which to build trust than our public health emergencies. Because of the time scales involved, little of what we must do to solve the problem for the long term would show visible results in the near term…
Climate action requires two essential forms of trust-building. The first is to build enough trust in expertise that the consensus among scientists can be accepted as the consensus of the people. The second is to build trust in the idea that the effort and investment needed to solve the problem is worth it—even if it takes years or decades to see the fruits of our labor.
These are incredibly important messages about trust from Pete – and why I entitled my first BidenBrief: “Trust in Joe.” Please vote for him, if you haven’t already.
Please, as always, pass it along.