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Is there hope for America in an era of broken trust?

By Kenneth C. Davis, Special to CNN
  • Kenneth Davis: Debt-ceiling debate latest in list of ills that have shaken Americans' trust
  • He says Wall Street, crime, scandals, political fights have made us lose faith in institutions
  • We should recall, the republic has faced bigger, more fractious challenges, he says
  • Davis: U.S. strides have come from the bottom up, not from some savior

Editor's note: Kenneth C. Davis is the author of Don't Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition among many other books. He lives in New York City.

(CNN) -- Trust is one of those verities that Americans have always liked to talk about.

"In God We Trust" says our money. ("All Others Pay Cash" reads the ubiquitous sign behind checkout registers.)

Dr. Spock once counseled: "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do."

And President Reagan taught us to "trust but verify."

But in these times of great recession, bailouts, high unemployment and nonstop partisan infighting, the fundamental sense of trust the nation once possessed seems irreparably damaged. The deep divisions in Washington, evident most recently in the wrangling over the debt ceiling, drove this home. Opinion polls in the wake of the debate confirmed the worst news for the Beltway Crowd: Confidence in Congress has plunged to an all-time low.

We are trapped in what I have called an era of broken trust. Its roots can be traced back more than a decade.

There was the Enron collapse in 2001 and a string of other corporate scandals, including those of Tyco and WorldCom; the dotcom crash; the shameful revelations of pedophile priests weighing down the Catholic Church; the failures of the CIA and FBI in some very high profile cases, such as the Robert Hanssen spying case and culminating in 9/11.

Americans have steadily lost faith in government, its agencies and many of our other basic institutions.

Here are a few other lowlights on the road to this sorry state: ­

•The morass in Afghanistan deepened as we moved further away from the fateful event that took us there

•The deceptions and mistaken assumptions that led to the invasion and occupation of Iraq continued to weigh the nation down in a costly war

•The response to Hurricane Katrina at every level of government was a national disgrace

•The worst upheaval in the global economy since the Great Depression shook trust in bedrock financial corporations and the government agencies that were supposed to regulate them

Perhaps the best summary of what this period in our history has meant was unwittingly delivered by President Bush on "Good Morning America," during the Katrina catastrophe in 2005: "I don¹t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

Of course, Bush was wrong, as ample evidence later proved.

But Americans used to trust that even if the levees broke, somebody would be there to fix them, keep the floodtide back and rescue those flailing in the water. No more. A feeling of deep distrust has been cemented by Washington's recent display of dysfunction.

From the historical perspective, we might ask: Was there ever a "Good Old Days" when the forces of society and government were pulling in the same direction? Or is that merely a nostalgic American myth? Were the "Good Old Days" actually terrible?

The easy answer is that America has, of course, seen worse. Much worse. It is more than fitting that the debate over debt, ­while far from inconsequential, can be viewed against the backdrop of the 150th anniversary of the most divisive moment in American history: 1861 and the onset of the Civil War. More than 600,000 Americans -- 2% of the population at the time -- died in a war that lasted four long, dreadful years.

The death toll and destruction that leveled American cities 150 years ago are bleak reminders of what real division and broken trust once meant -- and of the ultimate cost of failing to make political compromises. Things may be contentious now, but there have been no canings on the floor of Congress, no real threat of secession or rebellion, and no deadly combat between fellow Americans.

Besides the Civil War itself, the country has lived through serious differences and has been far more divided in times past. In the 1840s, Protestant and Catholic Americans killed each other in Philadelphia's "Bible Riots," and there have been other violent sectarian battles over religion and immigration.

Many African-Americans throughout history would scoff at the notion of trusting government. Theirs is largely a story of a deep division that once meant enslavement, later segregation and racial hatred: lynchings, separate water fountains, separate and unequal schools and other institutional discrimination. Native-Americans, long denied even the fundamental right of citizenship, also know a history of being stripped of their lands, their trust crushed with every broken treaty.

During the Vietnam War era, when the counter-culture mantra was "Never trust anyone over 30," the country experienced the agonizing split created by that costly conflict. Campuses were in turmoil, protestors filled American streets, and peace demonstrations turned violent.

So, from the historical perspective, things have been much worse.

Fortunately, we are a long way from the worst divisions our country has experienced over 235 years. This recent posturing over finances has been mean-spirited and nasty. But the National Guard has not been called out. Campus protestors have not been shot. Police dogs are not being set on marchers. Civil rights workers are not being murdered. There is no blood running in the streets after sectarian riots. So far it has been a war of words.

But for many, that is not much comfort.

The question is: Can it get better? Can public trust be restored? Can we end this era of broken trust?

History says yes. But it has never been about some valiant knight riding to the rescue. The real beauty of the American story is that the great strides achieved in this country -- from its birth out of revolution, through emancipation and abolition, suffrage, Native American citizenship and civil rights ­-- have come painfully and haltingly, usually from the bottom up, not the top down.

There is an American spirit that has seen the country through wars, depressions, and even violent divisions. And that is what deserves our trust. History says trust is not about a party or politician, but an idea.

And in the nation's darkest hour, when more than a war of words was at stake, President Lincoln named that American spirit "the better angels of our nature."

"Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people?" Lincoln asked in his first inaugural, as civil war loomed.

"Is there any better or equal hope in the world?"

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kenneth C. Davis.