Collective Action Requires a Shared Story

Throughout the mid-20th century, if you asked Americans if they trust the institutions of their society to do the right thing, you would get around 75 percent of Americans saying yes.

Now the percentage is down to about 18 percent. That’s a massive change.

There’s been a related collapse of faith in each other. If you ask people if they trusted their neighbors, 50 years ago, 60 percent did. Now, it’s about 32 percent and roughly 20 percent among millennials and Gen Z. That distrust reduces what sociologists call “spontaneous sociability,” which is a fancy phrase for saying our ability to get together and do stuff.

In an Orthodox Jewish community, where there still is a lot of trust in each other, if someone loses a child, the whole community rallies around that person and bombards them with services. And that’s still largely true in the Black community. As one friend of mine says, “If I’m in my neighborhood, and I see a Black kid on the street, I›m sort of that kid›s parent.” When you live in a community where other people are disciplining the other children, then you live in a community where people are taking responsibility for each other. That’s a form of spontaneous sociability.

On a national scale, we have lost the ability to function this way. The result is that we›re more alone with our troubles.

If you distrust someone else, and you withhold from that person, and she perceives you as untrustworthy, then distrust spirals. Once it gets started, the momentum is very hard to stop. This is what I’ve called distrust doom loops.

For example, I don›t tell jokes on Twitter because I don’t trust the community there. And I assume people will leap on a sentence and twist it out of its meaning to make me look bad. Once that distrust loop gets established, it’s difficult to be the one to go on Twitter and be vulnerable. You tend instead to be less vulnerable, and the people who want to be vulnerable leave Twitter.

To get out of our distrust doom loop, we have to build trust, and collective trust is built partly by telling a common story and partly by doing stuff together.

A man who does trust-building in cities in the upper Midwest told me, “You’ve got to make a tangible project, like cleaning up a lot, building a park, repairing something.” If you get people working together on something tangible, you can start to build trust. To give one example, I’ve spent time in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, which is a small town about an hour from Winston-Salem. Wilkesboro used to be the corporate headquarters of Lowe’s and Holly Farms, the food manufacturer eventually bought by Tyson Chicken. The city even had a piece of NASCAR. In the 90s, all of those companies left. They moved their headquarters to big cities, and Wilkesboro went through a really hard time.

Now they’re in the midst of a resurrection built around gatherings. They’re building bed and breakfasts, and they have a thing called MerleFest in honor of Merle Haggard. They see themselves as people who make things, and they›re all part of the same story of how they can find places where people can gather. It›s a clear story, they all tell it, and they know their role in it. That›s how a local story can unify a town. That’s how a common story can unify a people. 

This story is from Common Good issue 07.
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