Despite growing political polarization at the national level, local institutions are still strong—and local actors have a key role to play.
In the age of Trump, America has a trust problem.
Confidence in our institutions is at historic lows, and political polarization has skyrocketed. This extraordinarily divisive moment in our history may feel like a direct effect of Donald Trump’s presidency—in the year since his election, Trump has successfully used everything from Civil War monuments to NFL player protests to exploit and widen the divisions between Americans.
But it’s actually part of a forty-year trend in which public trust—in political leaders, the media, big business, and even each other—has been declining. According to the Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project, trust in the federal government to “do what is right” declined from 53 percent to 22 percent since 1972. Trust in media has declined from 68 percent to 32 percent. We also trust each other less: The share of adults that felt “most people can be trusted” dropped from 46 percent to 31 percent.
Reestablishing trust matters: It’s the bedrock on which functional institutions rest, and these institutions function as the rules of the road for societies and the organizations that govern them. When we lose faith in institutions, it becomes difficult for societies to help individuals and communities adapt to a fast-changing world—a vicious cycle that only further erodes trust.
There are, however, shoots of optimism. The one area where trust has remained high is within local communities. In fact, trust in local government has actually increased over the past several decades, and Americans remain very satisfied with their friendships and social networks.
Why? Bonds to place may unite constituents to local officials more than bonds to party, allowing for less polarization at the local level. Americans have been self-selecting into communities that reflect their cultural and ideological preferences. We likely display more affinity for those institutions and leaders that are closest to our influence.
Even with geographic sorting, though, significant economic and social divides remain within cities and regions. Between 2010 and 2015, only eight of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas successfully achieved inclusive growth, meaning they added jobs, raised productivity, lifted median wages, and drove down poverty rates for both whites and people of color. And while the nation has become more racially and ethnically diverse, race and class still serve as powerful barriers that keep neighborhoods and schools segregated.
These disparities motivated Brookings’ Inclusive Economic Development Lab to try to address the economic and social challenges. I was part of a team on this project that collaborated with one set of local actors—economic development groups—in Indianapolis, Nashville, and San Diego. Reflecting on the experience, I observed at least two reasons why business leadership groups—and the private sector more generally—have an important role to play in furthering both inclusive growth and social cohesion and trust.
First, amidst rising skepticism that modern capitalism can deliver broad-based economic prosperity, it is incumbent on business leadership groups to acknowledge the inequities in their backyards. While simple, doing so is an important step in maintaining (or reestablishing) trust with other stakeholders that have been working to address social inequities for decades.
Second, actually solving the problem will require well-resourced regional coalitions that can stimulate good job creation, prepare workers with the skills they need, and ensure all communities have access to opportunity. The private sector is fundamentally involved in that endeavor, but activating them may require a regional narrative that reframes the challenge. Regional economic development groups and chambers of commerce are uniquely positioned to fill this role, using their leadership platform, currency with the private sector, and research capacity to establish why economic exclusion is both a moral failing and a drag on growth and opportunity.
For instance, Nashville’s rapid rise as an “it city” has prompted business leaders to argue that continued economic growth is not sustainable without improving opportunities for everyone. San Diego’s business leaders are warning that the region’s racial skills disparities and housing affordability crunch inhibit local business innovation—long a San Diego advantage. And in Indianapolis, the Indy Chamber has identified shared barriers to employment that diminish the potential of both workers and firms—from insufficient skills to criminal records to transportation access.
Armed with these narratives and grounded in facts, business leadership groups in these regions—whose boards and membership are typically more male, white, and conservative than the city’s populations—have been cautiously welcomed by equity advocates and neighborhood organizations who’ve historically worked to address economic and social disparities.
Together, these groups could form powerful local coalitions for inclusive prosperity. Their activation also serves as a vital sign of a healthy, trusting community. Reflecting on how the Cleveland-based Fund for our Economic Future helped organize business, philanthropy, and government around region-wide investments in job creation, workforce development, and spatial planning in Northeast Ohio, the Fund’s former director of regional engagement, Chris Thompson, wrote that “collaboration moves at the speed of trust.”
People are highly distrustful of Washington. Frankly, Washington is highly distrustful of Washington. And as we enter the second year of a Trump presidency, it remains difficult to imagine a reversal of this trend. For the time being, to rise above our national trust crisis, we may need to dive beneath it.