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What can we do to restore trust in social and governing institutions?

Social science research has shown an erosion of social trust among Americans over past decades. According to many political scientists, this trust is fundamental, as our democracy and social institutions rely upon it.

Many social scientists attribute this decreasing trust to America's increasing diversity. They argue that as our communities have grown larger and more diverse, we interact less with our neighbors. Such claims have encouraged efforts to limit or control diversity, especially as it relates to immigration. Examples include calls for walls between the United States and Mexico, movements to declare English the official U.S. language and efforts to define America as a Christian nation.

Political scientists have warned that this erosion threatens our ability to govern ourselves, as the democratic process relies upon community organizing and civic engagement.

In Distrust, American Style: Diversity and the Crisis of Public Confidence, Indiana University faculty member Sheila Suess Kennedy approaches the research from a different angle. She notes the challenges to social trust from an increasingly complex modern society, including increased diversity, but argues we must focus on the principles and institutions that hold us together, despite our differences.

"Rather than composing odes to a bygone day, rather than bemoaning the loss of interpersonal trust of the sort experienced where (like Sam's bar in Cheers) 'everybody knows your name,' contemporary communities have compensated for urban complexity and attempted to accommodate the realities of modern city life by creating trustworthy institutions," she says.

Kennedy contends that our ability to trust our neighbors depends upon our ability to "trust our social and governing institutions," and catalogues the ways in which those institutions have betrayed our trust over the past decade.

The ability of these institutions to compensate for our declining interpersonal trust has been damaged by government scandals, involving lobbying and cronyism, as well as private sector dishonesty and collapse, she says. Incidents such as the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and immoral behavior by elected officials have contributed to an atmosphere of mistrust and and a belief that government is inept.

Kennedy argues that restoring trust in social and governing organizations is the key to rebuilding our national psyche. To begin the process, she says, we must reclaim constitutional, accountable government. Kennedy argues that the first steps should focus on reforming the electoral process, improving public accountability and repairing America's tattered social safety net, with a particular emphasis on health care.

Kennedy, a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has written Distrust for a wide audience beyond the political scholars who will likely be interested in the book.

Prior to pursuing interests in teaching, writing and research, Kennedy was executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. She has served as corporation counsel for the city of Indianapolis and was a one-time Republican candidate for U.S. Congress. Her primary research areas include civil liberties and civil rights, charitable choice, religion and public policy and nonprofit organizations.

Her previous books include What's a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing in the ACLU?, in which she argues that civil liberties are, in fact, conservative principles; and God and Country: America in Red and Blue, in which she examines the religious roots of American cultural divisions. Find her full list at http://www.spea.iupui.edu/Faculty/sheilakennedy/.