It’s not surprising that at a time when it’s hard to trust Facebook, the president and Congress that truths we once found self-evident have given way to disbelief. Many Americans have discarded once taken-for-granted beliefs in democracy, science, God, hard work, reputable information, patriotism, marriage and good manners. Some of these currents cross class, age and party lines, although they are especially common among younger Americans, the less educated and those on the political extremes.
Let’s be clear: This is not disagreement (“you’re wrong”); it is disbelief (“it’s not true”). Today’s Age of Disbelief is not unique to the United States, but it is particularly troubling in a nation long characterized by its Lockean optimism, belief in reason and faith in institutions.
What are the contours and dimensions of this disbelief? Who are the disbelievers and where did their disbelief come from? What does it mean for American society and politics? And what can be done about it?
It’s hardly news that Americans are deeply dissatisfied with government, but what is newer and more ominous is the declining faith in the U.S. political system and democracy. Just half of Americans “support the political system,” and only 30 percent of millennials think it is essential to live in a democracy, compared to 75 percent of those born in the 1930s.
Science doesn’t fare much better. Despite an overwhelming consensus among scientists about climate change, just half of the population believes that it is occurring due to human activity. Similarly, even though most scientists affirm that genetically modified foods are safe, 57 percent of Americans believe they are not. Many don’t believe in the benefits of vaccines and science-based medicine, and science is also indirectly fingered in developing purportedly job-destroying automation and artificial intelligence. This is a far cry from the mid 20th century, when lab coat-wearing scientists, rockets, wonder drugs and “labor-saving” devices were ushering in a utopian future.
Whereas generations of pollsters have found near-universal professed belief in God, atheism has risen sharply in the 21st century. Gallup found 11 percent expressing disbelief in 2016, compared to 2-4 percent between 1944 and 1994. Asked differently, the percentage rose from 10 percent in 2001 to 21 percent in 2016. The proportion of nonbelievers is three times as high among younger adults than among those 50 and older, and more than twice as high among men than women.
Marriage is still an ideal for most, but 55 percent of millennials say that getting married and having children is not that important. The work ethic also appears to be in retreat. Most believe that hard work pays off, yet 43 percent of non-college educated whites disagree. Just one-third of millennials characterize themselves as hard working, compared to three-fourths of baby boomers.
Faith in the media has been declining for some time, but the promotion of Orwellian concepts like “alternative facts” and “fake news” has further muddied the waters. Republicans and millennials are especially likely to disbelieve the media, and most Americans don’t trust information on social media. Higher education, once universally admired, is now disparaged as a hotbed of liberal bias and political correctness by most Republicans.
Love of country was once a given, but a 2016, pre-Trump Gallup poll found that just 52 percent were “extremely proud” to be American (including only one-third of those between 18 and 29), down from 70 percent in 2003. Just 12 percent of Millennials described themselves as “patriotic,” compared to 73 percent of their grandparents’ generation.
Belief in the honesty and good intentions of other people also has suffered. Only one-third of Americans in 2013 said that most people can be trusted, whereas a majority did in the 1960s.
What does this mean?
If we don’t trust each other, it is easier to treat people perfunctorily, if not rudely. Without the most basic beliefs of all major religions — love, generosity, tolerance, forgiveness, nonviolence — we see their opposites: hatred, selfishness, intolerance, retribution and violence. With growing mistrust, one’s potential circle of friends narrows, marriages and relationships become more fragile, and business transactions are more difficult. Goodbye etiquette, politesse or just giving the other guy the benefit of the doubt. Instead, we have bullying, road rage, talk-show rants, attack politics and online harassment, racism and misogyny. Three-fourths of Americans say that good manners have declined.
Skepticism is healthy, but the extent of today’s disbelief is corrosive. Social cohesion is undermined. Cooperation, compromise, civility and consensus become elusive. Enter civic disengagement and increased tolerance for authoritarianism.
Disbelief in science can lead to poorer public health, environmental devastation, lack of innovation, and a declining economy. Distrusting other carefully researched, credible information — reported in reputable news media and taught in schools and colleges — enables fantasy worlds rimmed with untruths, allegations and conspiracy theories to flourish.
An unfair economy leads many to dismiss the value of hard work. Yet, without more adults working and being committed to their jobs, the macro economy and individual economic fortunes suffer, as do tax revenues and the ability of government to invest in national needs.
What can we do?
Greater government transparency and more equal access to political power are important. We need to learn civics, etiquette and how to relate better to one another. Public and employer policies must reward hard work with good pay and opportunities for mobility. More rigorous, objective journalism should be coupled with social media weeding out violent, hateful and fact-free content. A less coarse popular culture would help.
We must combat the growing power of negative thinking. It’s time for Americans to stand up for essential, foundational beliefs in democracy, civility, courtesy, science, reason, the work ethic and accountable government. These are beliefs that have held American democracy and society together, and this is a culture war worth fighting.
Andrew L. Yarrow, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, will publish his fifth book, “Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life,” later this year. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.