When I began interviewing white, working-class Ohioans in 2010 about their stories of relationships and forming families, I was most surprised by the deep level of distrust they described—of lovers and spouses, neighbors, parents, and of institutions in general. “I don’t trust nobody,” is how a divorced mom put it. She didn’t even trust her own friends, adding, “If you can’t trust your friends, who can you trust?”
I grew up in a working-class family, too, but it was in the context of the extremely high-trust community of the Old Order Amish. I took trust for granted growing up; it was like oxygen. Working-class America, I began to see, could not take such trust for granted. A comprehensive crisis of trust had engulfed much of working-class America—distrust that in many cases grew from family fragmentation and spilled over into politics in a dramatic way with the 2016 and 2020 elections.
But especially after the 2016 election, and as I began my work helping to start Braver Angels, a nonprofit devoted to political depolarization among citizens, I was struck by the ideologically-motivated levels of deep distrust I saw among college-educated, relatively affluent Americans. On a given day, a college-educated conservative might tell me it’s too dangerous to participate in a dialogue with a Black Lives Matter activist. On the other end, a college-educated progressive might tell me that it’s too dangerous to participate in a dialogue with a Trump-supporting Tea Party activist. In both cases, “I don’t trust those kinds of people” becomes the default response.
As it turns out, research is showing that college-educated Americans are quietly experiencing a surge in distrust in ways that may be dramatically affecting the body politic. How is this rise in distrust manifesting itself among the college-educated? And what might it suggest about the dimensions of America’s crisis of trust?
First, an important May 2021 report from More in Common found that: “the most ideological segments—Progressive Activists, Traditional Conservatives, and Devoted Conservatives—have higher levels of interpersonal trust even as they have the most polarized views towards institutions.” Those groups are also among the most educated and have higher incomes. For instance, when asked if they feel that federal government is “dishonest,” 59% of people with incomes of $120,000 or more said “yes,” compared to 48% of those with incomes under $20,000.
Second, a June 2019 More in Common report found that, at least among Democrats, the more educated you are, the more you inaccurately ascribe (in an unflattering direction) the views of people who disagree with you. Specifically, “Democrats’ understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn. This effect is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.”
For instance, when presented with the statement that “Many Muslims are good Americans,” Democrats estimated, on averaged, that less than 50% of Republicans agreed with that statement, when actually almost three-quarters of Republicans agreed with it, leading to a “perception gap” of 29 points. The more educational degrees Democrats had, the more likely they were to misestimate Republicans’ actual views.
As the authors of the report note, these misperceptions are significant because they tend to feed into views about the character of people on the other side. For instance, the same report found that more than 80% of both Republicans and Democrats believed that people on the other side are “brainwashed” or “hateful.”
Third, the 2016 and 2020 elections laid bare rising distrust among both Democrats and Republicans, including the college-educated. The Winston Group, a Republican outfit, found in a February 2021 survey, “62 percent of Democrats don’t believe the results of the 2016 election, and 61 percent of Republicans don’t believe the outcome of the 2020 election.” A separate January 2021 survey from another group found that 50% of Republicans with college education said Joe Biden’s election was legitimate, compared to only 23% of Republicans without a college education. Still, that means about half of college-educated Republicans don’t trust the results of the 2020 election.
Moreover, an analysis of people who were arrested or charged for their roles in the January 6 attacks at the Capitol found that they were a mix of white-collar and blue-collar workers. Specifically, 40% were business owners or held white-collar jobs. “They work as CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants,” the researcher, Robert A. Pape, noted. For instance, Adam Johnson, the father of five who was famously caught on camera walking with the Speaker’s lectern at the Capitol, is the husband of a doctor.
Finally, a large national study that examined vaccine hesitancy from January-May 2021 found that whereas levels of vaccine hesitancy dipped among high-school-educated or less Americans, they remained constant among Americans with Ph.D.’s. In fact, Americans with Ph.D.’s had higher levels of vaccine hesitancy than any other educational group. Whatever one thinks about the merits of the Covid vaccines, it’s important to note that distrust of vaccines is happening across all social classes, including the highly educated.
So, what might all this suggest about the shape of America’s crisis of trust in late 2021? I have three brief observations.
First, it is increasingly true that highly educated Americans are finding more reasons to distrust—whether that’s the highly-educated progressive who distrusts her highly-educated neighbor with a Trump sign in their yard, or that degreed, Trump-supporting neighbor with doubts about the veracity of the 2020 election.
Second, as the 2020 More in Common report notes, whereas the crisis of distrust for many working-class Americans can be rooted in experiences of familial or community traumas, as we’ve discussed previously at IFS, the distrust that many highly-educated Americans experience tends to be rooted in ideology.
Finally, we should be clear that distrust is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it may be a sign of a healthy democracy.
But it is a symptom that all is not well in the body politic. As marriage researchers know, when distrust advances to contempt or disgust of a spouse, it’s a sign that a relationship is on life support. And that’s exactly where America seems to be today, especially with ideologically-motivated distrust. Indeed, the 2020 More in Common report found that “disgust” toward voters who voted differently is the one emotion that both Biden and Trump supporters seriously underestimated in their political opposites.
For instance, 66% of Biden supporters felt disgust for Trump supporters, though Trump supporters estimated only 43% of Biden supporters felt such disgust. A similar dynamic was true for Trump supporters, though not as strong: 49% actually felt disgust toward Biden supporters, though still above the estimated 38% that Biden supporters guessed.
America now has a cross-class crisis of trust among its citizenry—a crisis quickly escalating into all-out disgust and contempt for our fellow Americans. The task now is to find ways together to make our institutions worthy of our trust, and in the process to build trust with each other.
This article is republished, with permission, from the Institute for Family Studies blog.