Democracy requires that we find a way to trust one another


Given the frenzied coverage of today’s events, I wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to meditate on Melissa’s wise insights on the broader damage horrific events like today’s shooting can do to our society. Below is an excerpt from the opening of tonight’s segment with Bob Herbert:

When we feel helpless, prayer is something we can do. When we have no words to express our grief, religious texts give us something to say. When we feel all hope is lost, faith gives us a way to hold on until tomorrow. These are not trivial feats. These acts of faith can keep individuals, families, and communities from descending into despair. As we acknowledge the importance of personal faith in the face of tragedy, there is another kind of faith Americans will need in the coming days: faith in one another and in the American experiment in self-government. Among this nation’s great contributions to the world has been our distinctive associational life.

Even in the 19th century, Alexis DeTocqueville noted that Americans have an irrepressible tendency to get together to solve problems, promote goals, and seek victories. He identified the constitutional protection of free assembly as key to American national character and praised our collective civic life as the foundation of our democracy:

“There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society.”

But in recent decades associational life has declined precipitously. Harvard researcher Robert Putnam has mapped our growing dis-association since the 1980s. We are less likely to join bowling leagues, PTAs, and even local political parties. With this decline comes a lack of solidarity, trust and tolerance.

A frayed social fabric is bad for our politics.

With little trust in each other or our leaders, the rugged, self-reliant, American individualist find himself standing alone, isolated, in a moment my colleague, Chris Hayes, has dubbed the Twilight of the Elites.

If we react, without faith, the Colorado massacre can make the problem worse. It is understandable why, in the wake of random, terrifying acts of violence we may want to scoop up our families and fall to our knees in prayers. It makes sense why we may want to do so behind locked doors and drawn curtains that shut out the suddenly scary and unpredictable people around us.

But that is the impulse we must resist by consciously cultivating our civic faith. If the experiment of self-government is going to survive, we must be willing to trust one another, even when trust feels foolish. 

There are common sense laws and policies that can make communities safer. If we are responsible, we will move toward enacting them. But no wall will ever be high enough to remove all of our vulnerability. 

A good society can never emerge from virtuous but isolated citizens. Democracy requires that we find a way to trust one another in our neighborhoods, our schools, and yes, in our movie theaters.

Democracy requires that we find a way to trust one another