Trust and distrust are fundamental ingredients of representative democracy.
Representative democracy is built on the premise that we must, by and large, trust our elected leaders to represent our interests and to keep their promises. We want leaders who embody our ideals and values, and fight for them at home and abroad.
Not only do we have to trust our leaders, they also need to trust each other. Trust is the coin of the realm. Without it, things come apart. The executive and legislative branches, the various agencies of government, simply cannot function without a level of trust to work together.
Governance requires a belief in the reliability and truthfulness of the people and groups with which we deal. We need to have trust that, if we reach an agreement, both sides will carry it out. Without trust, we can’t do business with anyone.
At the same time, strange as it may seem, distrust is also a fundamental ingredient of democracy and policymaking. We must distrust officials enough to ask questions and demand answers about their performance in office.
Our political leaders should always know they are being watched and held accountable. Our system of checks and balances requires rigorous oversight of all persons in all the branches of government.
Trust is required in foreign affairs, too. We have to be able to trust other countries to keep their word and honor their agreements. Americans have long been reluctant to trust other nations, dating back to the founding fathers’ warnings against entangling alliances. In the era of Trump’s “America First,” distrust has reached levels which threaten the entire system.
Obviously, the balance between trust and distrust depends on the person and nation we’re dealing with. If it’s a good friend, for example, the United Kingdom, we have the experience of friendly relations, shared values and similar cultures, leading to a great deal of trust.
There’s much less trust with China or Russia, with our history of contentious relations, our very different systems of government and our intense competition for influence.
Depending on the circumstances, the degree of trust varies, and so does the degree of distrust. Our system works best when we have sufficient trust to do business but enough distrust to closely scrutinize the actions of others. When Will Rogers was asked where he wanted his statue placed in the U.S. Capitol, he said, “I want to be where I can keep my eyes on the boys”.
So, we have a kind of paradox: to maintain a healthy representative democracy – and an effective foreign policy – we need a certain level of trust but also a healthy dose of suspicion, or distrust.
Now we are in a period, where distrust has reached new levels: between Republicans and Democrats, between the president and the Congress, between the House and Senate and even between each other.
At home, we are in an environment marked by a common overall distrust in people and institutions, certainly our adversaries, and often even our own neighbors. Abroad, Americans have a trusting view of allies and a cautious, if not distrustful, view of adversaries.
The adage “trust but verify” sums it up. We must employ both – trust and verification – as part of our crucial role in representative democracy.
We must make good decisions about when to trust, how much to trust – when to be curious or skeptical about a person or issue – when to want more information, when to trust or distrust a person’s integrity.
Getting the right level of trust or distrust makes all the difference in the success – or failure – of our representative democracy.
By Lee H. Hamilton