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The Politics of Trust

Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax
2012 16 Oct


Campaign season can be a confusing time for the uninformed voter. Even for voters who pay attention, it’s difficult to know who is telling the truth. Facts are routinely presented in ways that are self-serving, misleading, or downright deceptive. Sometimes, facts get abandoned altogether.

Not surprisingly, many in the media try to play referee. A host of supposedly unbiased, independent fact checkers have sprung up to expose the misstatements made by politicians. Still, voters prefer to consult the newscasters and fact-checking organizations that share their own assumptions about the way the world works.

Conservatives watch Fox News and utilize conservative fact checkers. Liberals watch MSNBC and utilize liberal fact checkers.

Who is right? Who is wrong?

Time magazine’s recent cover story makes this point:

The pundits on MSNBC, the Huffington Post and the editorial page of the New York Times do a fine job of calling out the deceptions of Romney, but if you want to hear where Obama is going wrong, you might be better served on the Drudge Report, Fox News or the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

“We don’t collect news to inform us. We collect news to affirm us,” explains Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who has been studying the 2012 electorate in swing-state focus groups. “It used to be that we disagreed on the solution but agreed on the problem. Now we don’t even agree on the problem.” All of this contributes to an environment in which, for some voters, unwelcome facts are simply filtered out and flushed away.

The Partisan Mind

The truth is… we believe what is said by people we already trust. If the presidential candidates from opposing parties directly contradict each other’s interpretation of the facts, we are likely to believe the candidate we support, even if the facts are not on our side. We are skeptical and suspicious of the opposing politician while we trust and affirm the politician we prefer.

Ross Douthat calls this phenomenon “The Partisan Mind”:

Up to a point, American politics reflects abiding philosophical divisions. But people who follow politics closely — whether voters, activists or pundits — are often partisans first and ideologues second. Instead of assessing every policy on the merits, we tend to reverse-engineer the arguments required to justify whatever our own side happens to be doing. Our ideological convictions may be real enough, but our deepest conviction is often that the other guys can’t be trusted.

Douthat uses the example of TSA scanners to get across the point:

Imagine, for a moment, that George W. Bush had been president when the Transportation Security Administration decided to let Thanksgiving travelers choose between exposing their nether regions to a body scanner or enduring a private security massage. Democrats would have been outraged at yet another Bush-era assault on civil liberties. Liberal pundits would have outdone one another comparing the T.S.A. to this or that police state. (“In an outrage worthy of Enver Hoxha’s Albania …”) And Republicans would have leaped to the Bush administration’s defense, while accusing liberals of going soft on terrorism.

But Barack Obama is our president instead, so the body-scanner debate played out rather differently… It was the populist right that raged against body scans, and the Republican Party that moved briskly to exploit the furor. It was a Democratic administration that labored to justify the intrusive procedures, and the liberal commentariat that leaped to their defense.

Theological Partisanship

The politics of trust extend beyond the political realm. In theological camps, we can see the same phenomenon.

Let’s say prominent Arminian theologian Roger Olson were to point out a weakness he sees in the young Reformed crowd. Many young Reformed guys would be quick to defend the tribe and deny the weakness. But if Tim Keller, a respected leader of the young Reformed, were to point out the very same weakness, the same guys would likely say, “Wow! He’s right.”

It’s the politics of trust.

Also, we are inclined to treat silly statements or questionable behavior in different ways, depending on whether or not the people who do something questionable are in our camp. If a controversial figure from outside a movement does something unwise or says something silly, our prejudice against them is simply affirmed. But if a trusted figure from inside the movement does something similar, we are likely to let it slide, overlook the offense, and explain away the faults. We extend “grace” on the basis of merit.

Tim Challies recognized this tendency in his review of Ann Voskamp’s book:

I fear that I might have said certain things differently had I considered her an “insider,” a fellow member of whatever little circle of the Christian world I inhabit… Would I have asked it that way if Ann was someone I might be on a panel with at the next conference I attend? Probably not. I may even have assumed different things about the way she understands the gospel. And maybe I would have put more effort into discussing some of the book’s strengths and showing how they balance the weaknesses. I hope not, but I can’t deny that somewhere in my mind lurks this insider and outsider kind of thinking which somehow encourages me to extend greater courtesy to one group than another.

The politics of trust are often at work in denominational squabbles. Our commonalities are overlooked, and our perceptions become weightier than reality. For some in the SBC, the insights of anyone even perceived as Reformed or Reformed-leaning immediately become questionable and suspect. Likewise, there are Reformed guys in the SBC who look at non-Reformed leaders with disdain. Even when they may be on the same page, there is an element of suspicion from one side or the other. Why? It’s the politics of trust.

Moving Forward

There isn’t a quick-fix solution to the “partisan mind.” It’s deeply embedded in the way we as humans receive information and make judgment calls.

But it does us well to recognize it is a problem. Sometimes, the first step in tackling a problem is to be aware that it exists.

Let’s not be satisfied with the politics of trust. For unless we find away to cross aisles and break down boundaries, Washington will remain in gridlock, denominational fires will continue to burn, and theological tribes will harden. And little good will ever get accomplished.

There has to be a third way.