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Building a resilient democracy: trust and action

By Jeffrey Roth - posted Thursday, 20 June 2024

In early 2020, just before the global sweep of COVID-19 became apparent, I stood with my National Guard unit as our commanding general prepared us for deployment to Kuwait. He emphasized a key tenet from the Army Leadership and Mission Command doctrines: trust is the cornerstone of building cohesive teams and ensuring confidence among leaders, subordinates, and teammates. This principle proved critical as, just months later, our unit faced the complexities of conducting military operations during a pandemic.

My experiences in the military, paralleled by years of service in NYC government, underscored a crucial lesson about the foundational role of trust and confidence, not just in the military but also in civic life.

In my book, Fires, Floods, and Taxicabs, I explore how democratic societies require active participation to forge shared experiences and mutual trust. Neglecting these principles weakens our communities and exposes our nation to manipulation by forces, internal and external, that seek to undermine our democratic institutions and values. Trust and participation are not merely beneficial; they are vital for fostering a sense of belonging and ownership within the democratic process. They are the bedrock of a resilient and sustainable democracy.


As we navigate another election year, a distinct feature of this cycle, unlike previous ones, is the historic low in Americans' trust and confidence in our institutions. This downward trend, first identified by the Pew Research Centerin the 1950s, plummeted to all-time lows in 2022 and shows no signs of recovery.

According to recent Gallup polls, the decline persists across a broad spectrum of institutions—including government, financial systems, academia, media, and religious organizations—without any indication of imminent reversal. This pervasive erosion of trust poses profound challenges to the functioning of a sustainable democracy. It undermines public faith in essential institutions necessary for democratic governance, complicates effective communication between the state and its citizens, and diminishes the overall legitimacy of political processes.

Trust is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy; it acts as the glue of social cohesion and fosters resilience in American communities, shielding us from the pernicious effects of political polarization and societal fragmentation. Trust unites individuals around a common purpose and shared values, enabling effective collaboration and compromise within our diverse society. Moreover, trust serves as a bulwark against misinformation—an increasingly potent tool used by adversaries to sow confusion about what is real and what is fabricated, as noted by Wardle and Derakhshan of the Council of Europe.

Thus, building and maintaining trust is crucial for a healthy democracy. Our confidence in public institutions and in one another is vital for navigating and overcoming the myriad challenges we face, such as pandemics, cybersecurity threats, climate change, extremism, and foreign interference. These threats demand that our communities be exceptionally resilient, prepared to withstand the inevitable trials of modern society.

Restoring our trust requires actively building bridges within our communities and neighborhoods. It is imperative that we all engage with our institutions and serve one another. Carol Guess, speaking at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, emphasized this commitment: 'We have to decide that we want to develop trust, and that it’s a priority.' She further noted that active participation fosters peace, reduces crime, and strengthens community cohesion. Indeed, studies, including one from the International Society of Political Psychology, show that nations with higher levels of trust in public institutions enjoy greater economic prosperity, lower crime rates, and less corruption.

Engaging in community activities and local governance not only builds trust but also cultivates a sense of unity among citizens. Through active involvement, we reinforce the bonds of trust between individuals, essential for the health and resilience of our communities.


Admittedly, establishing a direct causal link between civic participation and overall societal trust is challenging, and some studies suggest it might have minimal impact. However, research such as Daniel Aldrich'sin Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery highlights the undeniable benefits of social connections, which can significantly increase community resilience, particularly in the aftermath of disasters.

While civic engagement may not universally bolster generalized trust, it undeniably fortifies social networks that are crucial during recovery periods. Civic participation might not be the panacea for all social issues, but it is a crucial step toward fostering a sustainable democracy built on collaboration. Active involvement empowers citizens with a sense of ownership and responsibility.

Even if civic engagement doesn’t always yield the specific policy outcomes we desire, it cultivates a culture of transparency and accountability in governance. This, in turn, can enhance citizen satisfaction and bolster confidence in the effectiveness of democratic practices.

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About the Author

Jeffrey Roth is the best-selling author of Fires, Floods, and Taxicabs, and a long-serving member of the Army National Guard.

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