Only one-third of Americans say their fellow countrymen can be trusted according to a recent AP-GfK poll, down from over half 40 years ago. Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters and who can blame them with the government appearing to bless any and all surveillance and intervention in the interests of the status quo. "I'm leery of everybody," warns one respondent, and as AP reports, this is a potential problem for economic growth as "social trust" brings good things. A society where it's easier to compromise or make a deal; where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good, appears to promote economic growth. Distrust, on the other hand, seems to encourage corruption and there's no easy fix.
You can take our word for it. Americans don't trust each other anymore.
We're not talking about the loss of faith in big institutions such as the government, the church or Wall Street, which fluctuates with events. For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy - trust in the other fellow - has been quietly draining away.
These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.
Forty years later, a record high of nearly two-thirds say "you can't be too careful" in dealing with people.
Does it matter that Americans are suspicious of one another? Yes, say worried political and social scientists.
What's known as "social trust" brings good things.
A society where it's easier to compromise or make a deal. Where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good. Where trust appears to promote economic growth.
Distrust, on the other hand, seems to encourage corruption.
Even the rancor and gridlock in politics might stem from the effects of an increasingly distrustful citizenry
"It's like the rules of the game," Clark said. "When trust is low, the way we react and behave with each other becomes less civil."
There's no easy fix.
Trust has declined as the gap between the nation's rich and poor gapes ever wider, Uslaner says, and more and more Americans feel shut out. They've lost their sense of a shared fate. Tellingly, trust rises with wealth.
"People who believe the world is a good place and it's going to get better and you can help make it better, they will be trusting," Uslaner said. "If you believe it's dark and driven by outside forces you can't control, you will be a mistruster."
African-Americans consistently have expressed far less faith in "most people" than the white majority does. Racism, discrimination and a high rate of poverty destroy trust.
Nearly 8 in 10 African-Americans, in the 2012 survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago with principal funding from the National Science Foundation, felt that "you can't be too careful."
Can anything bring trust back?
Uslaner and Clark don't see much hope anytime soon.