Months after dropping out of the Democratic presidential primaries, Pete Buttigieg is back with a warning: America, he says, is facing a crisis of trust. And he says building that trust, in both American institutions and fellow citizens, is the only way to address the other challenges facing the country.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., called trust one of his "rules of the road" during his presidential campaign.
"Honesty is in our nature, and it is one of our greatest means of restoring faith in our democracy among everyday Americans and building a national movement rooted in trust and faith in our country and our beliefs," his campaign said.
He builds upon this idea, with his own life experiences, in his new book, Trust: America's Best Chance.
A 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center shows just 20% of U.S. adults say they trust the federal government to "do the right thing." The low trust in government predates Donald Trump's presidency and goes back more than a decade. Americans have a declining trust in each other as well.
"It reflects the broader reality we're living in — a combination of our political reality and our media environment — that has really created what I view as a threefold crisis in trust," Buttigieg says. "Trust in government to do the right thing, trust in one another and even global trust in the United States as a whole. And we're not going to be able to navigate that if we can't at least agree that we're living with the same facts."
Buttigieg expanded on the idea in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered. Interview highlights contain extended, Web-only answers.
On the issue of racial inequality and racial mistrust
This, I think, is the critical question for our time. And one of the biggest things I've found in researching the book is that it's reciprocal. A lot is made of the many reasons why Black Americans are suspicious of any number of institutions that have proven to be untrustworthy.
But let's also consider, if you consider trust a kind of currency that makes it possible to get through life, there are also many ways in which Black Americans in particular and Americans of color broadly are less likely to be trusted. The fact that it is more expensive to interact with the banking system, for example, if you live in a Black neighborhood, reflects the system unequally distributing economic trust.
Again, so many of the situations that lead to police violence involve what Bryan Stevenson has called a "presumption of dangerousness and guilt." In other words, I would argue, a mistrust that many Black Americans live with just walking through the street or driving a car.
So we have to consider trust as something that needs to be offered in order to be reciprocated. And that's true in the relationships people have with each other. And it's true in terms of the relationships we have with institutions.
On how mistrust in the U.S. affects how the country appears globally
What needs to happen is for America to be seen credibly and authentically to be leading in a positive direction, dealing with threats that affect not only us, but the rest of the world. Now, the good news in the bad news is that there are plenty of threats affecting the entire world, like the pandemic and increasingly climate change too, that America can't solve alone. But also that because we are such a big economy and a big part of the globe, the world can't solve it without America.
If we rise to meet these challenges in a way that's inclusive and authentic, then I believe we have a historic opportunity to swiftly accumulate trust in a way that hasn't happened probably since World War II, another moment where America earned a century's worth of credibility in a handful of years, because of the choices that we made. But it does bear emphasis that we need to recognize that trust is a strategic asset, and you can tell that our adversaries get it because of the effort they've put into eroding our levels of trust.
On where we should we go from here
I think the most important thing for us to do is to remember that, imperfect though it is, our constitutional system has encoded within it the tools to make it better and to make our institutions more trustworthy. This is something that reformers, activists and advocates have understood and used to make great change. And I think we're due for that to happen again.
As a general rule, the U.S. has produced roughly one constitutional amendment per decade or so. But we really haven't done anything in the last 50 years at the level required to make sure that our democracy is in fact democratic. The longer that goes on, the more tension you see between what the American people expect of our institutions and what we actually get.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., was an unlikely standout of the Democratic primaries - only 38 years old, mayor of a small town who'd never won a statewide race, who would have been the country's first openly gay president or even nominee.
Now, months after dropping out of the primaries, he is back with what may be an unlikely warning. America, he says, is facing a crisis of trust. And he says building that trust in American institutions and fellow citizens is the only way to address the other challenges facing the country.
His new book is called "Trust: America's Best Chance." In it, he builds on his own varied life experiences, from serving in the military in Afghanistan to serving as the mayor of his hometown, to show what's at stake when people lose trust in one another and how we can change. And Pete Buttigieg is here to tell us more about it.
Welcome, Mr. Mayor. Thanks for joining us.
PETE BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of trust, as you and I are speaking now, we've just learned that President Trump has tested positive for the coronavirus, and we're already beginning to see bizarre conspiracy theories about how he got it with no basis in fact. But what do you make of that?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, you know, the first thing is to recognize - and, of course, we all hope that the president quickly recovers - but to recognize the climate that we're in. Now, conspiracy theories, as I discuss in the book, are nothing new in America. We've had them going back at least to the 18th century.
But it is unusual for us to have this many elected officials, people in positions of responsibility and even the president himself often amplifying that kind of talk. And it reflects the broader reality we're living in - a combination of our political reality and our media environment that has really created what I view as a threefold crisis in trust - trust in government to do the right thing, trust in one another and even global trust in the United States as a whole. And we're not going to be able to navigate that if we can't at least agree that we're living with the same facts.
MARTIN: You know, and a number of people have been writing about what many people see as an underlying threat to the foundation of what people want America to be. And for some people, it's persistent inequality. You know, for some people, it's been technological change that's happened so fast, it's left people unmoored. How did you arrive at trust - at the thing that's missing from American public life or life in general that you feel is at the root of so many of the other concerns that people have?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, consider the moment we're living in right now. And, you know, we're heading into an election that is incredibly fraught. We're concerned about whether there'll be challenges to the legitimacy of the election itself. And it's a moment to remember that an election is an exchange of trust. There's a lot of trust placed in the hands of the people to choose our leaders. And we trust that our votes will be tallied and counted and that leaders will be hired or fired on that basis.
We're also living through a public health crisis that is a huge example of the role of trust because lives literally depend on whether medical authorities are trusted when they give us information and whether we can be trusted to cooperate with their guidance.
Now, the other issues that surround us are unquestionably connected. When we look at racial and economic injustice, part of what they do is divide Americans and make it more difficult to believe in the goodwill and the trust that's really needed to function - not just politically, but socially.
MARTIN: It would be nice to think about this just as a kind of a thought exercise. But it's just impossible to do in an atmosphere of an election year of hyper-partisanship of - that just because the reality of it is, you know, none of these ideas can sort of take place in isolation. We just can't avoid the fact that you've got - we are weeks away from a presidential election. We're already in the election season. And, you know, you make the point that leadership matters. So how would you persuade people to think about this who want their guy to win?
I mean, I'm thinking, for example, about the current argument over the Supreme Court seat. I mean, I know a number of the Republican senators are annoyed that people were bringing up the fact that they set a very different standard for themselves when Barack Obama was president. But, you know, those are the facts. And...
MARTIN: One thought that occurs after reading your book is that part of the issue with them reversing themselves is not just the hypocrisy of it, but how, then, do you trust them to keep their word on other matters of consequence? You know, it's not just this one thing. It's, like...
MARTIN: OK, so you reversed yourself on this. This is a matter of consequence. But then how do you then go forward and say, well, you reversed yourself on this matter? How, then, do you go forward and negotiate and make a deal in good faith when you feel that you've been betrayed? See, this is an issue on both sides, like, no matter who wins, right, because...
MARTIN: Trust has been eroded.
BUTTIGIEG: Well, I think the most important thing for us to do is to remember that imperfect though it is, our constitutional system has encoded within it the tools to make it better and to make our institutions more trustworthy. This is something that reformers, activists and advocates have understood and used to make great change. And I think we're due for that to happen again.
You know, as a general rule, the U.S. has produced roughly one constitutional amendment per decade or so. But we really haven't done anything in the last 50 years at the level required to make sure that our democracy is, in fact, democratic. The longer that goes on, the more tension you see between what the American people expect of our institutions and what we actually get.
Just consider the fact that we're on track to now have a majority of the Supreme Court, should this nominee be confirmed, appointed by presidents who were elected by a minority of the American people and often confirmed by a senator, a Senate vote, that also reflects a minority of Americans. There are ways to fix these things.
And I've spoken about many of them in terms of bipartisan reforms, a national popular vote, admission of D.C. and, if they so choose, Puerto Rico as states - things that are not about who gets power. They're about making our country more reflective of the American people. And these are needed alongside the urgency of simply turning out to vote in the election season that's upon us right now because at the end of the day, that still is the moment of maximum power that citizens have to do anything about any of this.
It's not based on some fantasy that the system is perfect. It's based on the knowledge that the only way the system ever gets more perfect is if we use those tools that are in our hands as citizens. And the most powerful tool of all remains the ballot.
MARTIN: Pete Buttigieg is the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., a former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, a nominee for the Democratic nomination. His new book, "Trust: America's Best Chance," is out Tuesday.
Mr. Mayor, Mr. Buttigieg, thank you so much for talking with us today.
BUTTIGIEG: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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