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Take a chance on trust
It might save the republic
"The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust."
Henry Stimson, former secretary of state and secretary of war, wrote these words in 1946 in an article urging efforts to allay Soviet suspicions regarding the atomic bomb. But the principle applies more generally, and it is particularly germane to the challenges that face American democracy today.
On each side of the partisan debate is a cadre of loudmouths who exploit every opportunity to express their distrust and disdain for those on the other side. Many liberals took perverse delight during the Trump presidency in waking up each morning to discover something new to be appalled by. Many conservatives are doing the same thing during the Biden presidency. Both of these groups appear more attached emotionally to the divisions that vex the country than to any solutions that might help bridge the partisan rift. Righteous anger is powerfully addictive.
If the country as a whole is going to get beyond this destructive addiction, someone is going to have to put the Stimson principle, or a variant of it, to use in today's politics. One could begin by assuming the existence of sincerity on both sides, not among the loudmouths but among ordinary people. Assume that these moderate liberals and moderate conservatives want the United States to succeed. Both groups would like to see improvements in American society and politics, and they differ on what these improvements should consist of. But neither group would hold the republic hostage to having their way in every detail.
Imagine these two groups gathering, like neighbors at a community picnic or a meet-the-teachers night at the local public school. To be sure, this is harder to imagine than it would have been a generation ago, before communities began sorting themselves out politically and schools turned into partisan battlegrounds. But make the effort all the same.
What would these neighbors experience? In the first place, they would find people very much like themselves. Not identical to themselves; people are always different, one from the other. But all confront the same human challenges: of making a living, of finding friends and love and meaning in existence. One thing certainly would unite them: a distaste for the politics of zealotry—remember, these folks are assumed to be moderates.
But the most important part of the experience would be the reminder it affords that people who disagree with them politically are people not really very different from themselves.
Let the discussion turn to politics. Let people expound their views in good faith, and on the assumption that they will not be vilified for what they believe. Let others listen in equally good faith, acknowledging the right of each man and woman to his and her thoughtful convictions.
Certain issues in politics are morally freighted and difficult to compromise: the death penalty, abortion, assisted dying. But the vast majority of issues are more mundane and eminently compromisable, if people of good faith are simply given the option. Almost no one thinks immigration should be banned entirely; nor does anyone think there should be no restrictions at all on entry into the United States. Between these two extremes is where a moderate compromise could be found. No one contends that all weapons should be taken out of private hands; nor does anyone think shoulder-launched missiles and tactical nuclear weapons fall under the promise of the Second Amendment to preserve the right to bear arms. Here again, if the issue can be taken out of the hands of the loudmouths and symbol-slingers, a middle ground is possible.
So what would be required to get there?
Henry Stimson would have been the first to acknowledge that his advice didn't always work. In the case of the a-bomb, the Soviets deeply distrusted the United States as inveterate capitalists bent on the overthrow of socialism. And Americans looked on Stalin and his henchmen as bloodyhanded revolutionaries who wouldn't be content until they ruled the world. The trust Stimson called for was wholly unforthcoming; the result was the nuclear arms race that stole billions from better causes and came close to destroying humanity.
Thankfully, the issues that confront us today are not so apocalyptic. If trusting is taking a chance, on most issues it's a chance worth taking. The republic will survive tax rates that are a little too high or a little too low; the sky won't fall if this agency loses funding or that one gets a bit too much.
But the republic might not survive if our current distrust gets worse. Stimson was absolutely right that distrust breeds distrust. A Stimson contemporary, poet T. S. Eliot, wrote, "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper." So far the world has avoided ending with the bang of a nuclear war, but the whimper and carping of distrust might be just as fatal to American democracy.