I read Kevin Vallier’s Trust in a Polarized Age (2020) over the course of some of the most pivotal moments of American democracy in recent history, as a sitting president launched an unprecedented campaign to ignore the results of a presidential election—high drama occurring amidst a devastating pandemic. As I began writing this review, images of Trump supporters launching a putsch by invading the US Capitol were fresh in the public mind. From this perspective, it is easy to fall into the exact mindset Vallier looks to discredit: the belief that somehow liberal democracy—whatever, exactly, that means—has fundamentally failed us.
Trust in a Polarized Age provides a counter to this argument that is well-reasoned enough to push back, even in the context of the staggering political gyre we find ourselves in. Although it may be, in places, too cautious about the reforms that are needed and overly optimistic about the breadth of the population that can truly be brought into a trusting community, it provides a valuable set of analytical tools to help build policies and discourses to escape our current path toward greater disunity.
Read “Who Cares About Democracy?”
Is Liberalism Inherently Flawed?
Vallier starts with his own account of what is happening in the United States. Trust in a Polarized Age makes several crucial contributions to our understanding of what is happening to society now—and what needs to happen in a successful society. It points to a particular set of interconnected phenomena and explains how they feed into one another, creating a feedback loop that has brought us where we are: social distrust, political distrust, and political divergence are the key elements of his distrust-divergence hypothesis.
Vallier defends this thesis against several alternatives, but most consequentially he shows its superior explanatory power when compared to what he calls inherent-corruption theories. These are explanations of distrust and polarization that link both phenomena inextricably to liberal democracy. For example, in Why Liberalism Failed (2018), political theorist Patrick Deneen argues that the hyper-individualism within liberalism and liberal institutions divide and isolate us, that liberalism has a potent atomizing effect. For Deneen, decline in trust is, in part, the result of liberalism carried to its logical conclusion. Trust in a Polarized Age devotes ample space to showing, empirically as well as philosophically, how numerous liberal democracies the world over have succeeded in creating quite the opposite circumstances, with social and political trust allowing for better governance and, in turn, being reinforced by that governance. This makes these inherent-corruption theories difficult to accept. If the book accomplished only that, it would be a short but still important work, as the genre of “liberalism doom” seems to be a growing trend in the world of political philosophy. Vallier’s alternative hypothesis looks at the data and posits instead that more specific factors in the US are to blame for our rising distrust—and this distrust is driving political divergence.
On trust, the main topic of the book, Vallier seems fundamentally correct. We can observe his hypothesis in action daily, as political groups start to cluster more closely together and align with social “tribes,” defined by race, religion, ethnicity, education, geography, and overall lifestyle. Vallier argues that we trust members of outgroups less than we did in the past, and this has deepened our polarization. This is undoubtedly true—aesthetic or lifestyle choices, like being a vegetarian, driving a truck or a hybrid car, even decisions like which restaurant to eat at or coffee to buy, have evolved symbology that indicate one’s particular position within the culture war terrain. It is easier than ever to make snap judgements about the political beliefs—and thus assumed moral characters—of friends, acquaintances, and even strangers. When these judgements precede any meaningful interaction, they seem likely to cut off the growth of trust at its source.
Empirically, Vallier shows substantial support for this position—people trust one another less than they have in the past, and they trust political and civil institutions less as well. Indeed, a theme of the book involves blending intuitive or rational philosophical conclusions with empirical data. Admirably, he backs off several feasible claims because the data is insufficient to support them—a refreshing choice in a media landscape where all too often narratives are allowed to override data. Vallier’s take on the key to surviving polarization and rebuilding our capacity to govern is to create “trust for the right reasons”—that is to say, confidence in social and political institutions (though not necessarily politicians themselves) that is based not on ignorance of their failings (as is the case in societies without a free press or educated populace) but rather on a well-grounded belief that individuals, including government officials, are influenced by widely held morals in making their decisions.
Political Trust for the Right Reasons and a Thin ‘Veil of Ignorance’
To help in determining policies likely to achieve this, Vallier introduces several philosophical tools. One is public justification, which is the process of gaining approval from various groups in society, managing to avoid any defeater reasons they might have for eliminating a policy from consideration. The people to whom a policy must be publicly justified, however, are not people exactly as they exist now but rather their “moderately idealized” counterparts. Moderately idealized people differ from real individuals not in their core beliefs and values, but rather in their level of knowledge and contemplation.
“Moderately idealized agents correspond to real persons, but they have reflected enough to respond to consideration that we would hold them responsible for ignoring. In this way, moderate idealization appeals to standards of information and inference that are not perfect but that are appropriate to our practice of responsibility.”
Thus, even if a policy is in fact unpopular within a certain group, it can be justified if most people currently opposed to the policy oppose it on the grounds of fallacious evidence or inherently faulty reasoning. While idealizing any individual may seem like a loophole to avoid reality, it seems nonetheless valuable not only for finding policies that are objectively fair but for anticipating long-term reactions to policies. Think for example of the deep unpopularity of Obamacare in Kentucky—and the relatively positive reaction to KYnect, the same policy but branded specifically for Kentucky. The answers individuals actually give and the reasoning they claim to use are not always valid in determining which policies they will actually accept or what will be publicly justifiable, and so the use of moderately idealized individuals seems both valid and intriguing.
A final tool he applies is borrowed from John Rawls—the use of a “veil of ignorance.” Vallier’s veil is adapted and, I think, improved, as he refers to it as a very thin veil, asking observers to be ignorant only of their relative power in society, not their own ideals or fundamental attributes. The key to policy preferences behind such a “power-and-status veil” is reciprocity—individuals will choose policies that protect the basic rights of everyone if they imagine that they themselves are in a position of less power.
Can Liberalism Accommodate Reactionaries and Revolutionaries?
Combining these different theoretical and empirical tools, Vallier sets out to discover which policies improve trust while also being consistent with the policies that moderately idealized people would choose without being aware of their own relative power in said society. He concludes that the primary rights that society will choose to protect, following such a system, are freedom of association, some level of property ownership, a modest welfare state, and mechanisms for democratic input. By and large, each section is convincing, as Vallier combines these philosophical strategies with empirical studies to show why these particular rights need to be seen as primary if the goal is rebuilding trust. The overall tone is optimistic—Vallier does not believe that a radical revolution is needed to rebuild trust. In most cases, the optimism seems well grounded. However—and here I’m perhaps letting the enormity of recent events color my view—at other times it seems like Vallier’s recommendations for change are inadequate and his description of our challenges insufficient.
For example, while the idea of a thin veil of ignorance is useful, in using it to establish policies that will establish trust and publicly-supported policies in the real world, I think Vallier has to make at least two unsupported assumptions. The first is that ideologies can be removed from their beliefs about power, and the second is that individuals have a generally equal ideological desire for stability. Vallier largely argues that people from across the ideological spectrum would support basic rights like association because, even if they don’t want to extend those benefits to their enemies, a moderately idealized individual behind a thin veil of ignorance would want to protect such rights for themselves, should their own beliefs end up out of power.
In discussing his veil of ignorance, Vallier argues, “Depriving people of their status and power does not require that they detach from their personal commitments or set their values aside.” I think this inevitably runs up against the problem of what might be called teleological belief systems: those which claim a known end in history. A millenarian Christian or teleological Marxist believes, firmly, that whatever course history takes, the end will always be in their favor, and any personal suffering they experience along the way is justified by that ultimate victory. The working class will achieve consciousness or Christ will return in glory, at which point there is no question whose ideology will be in power—and if these events are inevitable, there is little reason to support reciprocal respect for the rights of other groups in the meantime. In other words, their beliefs about the structure of society cannot be separated from their (perceived) knowledge of their position in the power structure; they are incapable of going behind even a thin veil of ignorance. Such parties are unlikely to “adopt liberal rights as a risk-avoidance” strategy. There is no risk of long-term failure if the ends are already known, and so little interest in making compromises in the meantime.
Marxists, QAnon, and White-Supremacists
This points to perhaps a broader problem for Vallier’s framework—the assumption that each group is invested in the creation of a stable system. An accelerationist Marxist most certainly is not. Nor is a millenarian Christian, or a white supremacist, or an anarchist. Indeed, each group has a vested interest in the status quo being unstable, and this interest may outweigh any benefits they hope to achieve by carving out organizing rights for themselves in the present.
The rise of the Q movement brings a new salience to this group. If Q followers honestly believe, as they claim, that the government is dominated by pedophiles and blackmailers, then they not only lack any investment in stability, but in fact have an interest in tearing the system down. Q believers, anarchists, accelerationist Marxists, eschatologically-minded Christians, and white supremacists may only constitute single digit percentages of the population, but in a country this size that still means millions of people whose ideological interests are directly opposed to the creation of a stable system and thus have little reason to build their beliefs around reciprocity.
There are two possible answers to this conundrum. One is to accept that these groups are not going to consent to any stable governance. Vallier accepts that some radical libertarians may also be in such a situation and recommends some level of accommodation for them. But there can be no accommodation for some of these other groups—at least it does not seem that any accommodation could be imagined that could satiate all of their diametrically opposed demands.
The other answer, to which I lean, is that the followers of these groups are simply not moderately idealized, and that a moderately idealized person would not adhere to these beliefs. However, if this is the case, it casts some doubt on the ability of moderately idealized publics to serve as proxies for the actual public. Vallier hopes that if we can construct a society accepted by moderately idealized publics it would translate into actual trust among the actual public; he argues that “politics need not be war in the actual world because it is not war in a nearby feasible world.” But if tens of millions of people remain dedicated to tearing down such a system, can it govern effectively enough to create these positive feedback loops?
Some Stabilizing But Suboptimal Solutions to Declining Trust
This leads to the area where the most work needs to be done—finding solutions expansive enough to arrest the fall in trust. Trust in a Polarized Age promises solutions, but much of it seems dedicated to defending much of what already exists. Substantial effort is expended defending rights that Americans, in theory, already have—free association, private property, and voting—against radical “solutions” that would likely worsen the problem.
Where Vallier does venture to propose improvements, his recommendations seem valuable in at least two ways. He provides rigorous empirical and theoretical justification for familiar proposals, like universal cash benefits and reform of zoning restrictions, and also proposes less familiar policies, like the use of deliberative mini-publics to inform policymakers and simulating moderately idealized publics. This suggestion I found quite compelling, in that it extends the logic of a jury into policy making, arguing that groups of ordinary citizens, given information and a structured environment for deliberation, could provide valuable insight into the policy-making system by making public recommendations. This strikes me as a vast improvement on the current “public comment” system that privileges the loudest voices that can take the most time off of work. But the troubling events of the last year—with tens of millions of Americans rejecting scientific recommendations and the results of an objectively sweeping electoral victory—seem to require a broader solution. Fortunately, Vallier’s recommendations for extra-governmental changes seem quite valuable here, and his framework can be more broadly applied to political solutions as well.
Vallier ends his book with a plea for broader understanding, an attempt at reinstating values like empathy and toleration to political enemies in an effort to minimize polarization. His discussion of freedom of association also provides a particularly useful concept for improving societal conversations: the idea of “standing” for critique. His point is that criticism of organizations from the outside rarely prompts real change and is in fact more likely to harden beliefs than shift them: “We feel appropriate resentment and indignation at the nonmember who sticks her nose in our group’s business.”
This view is well augmented by a perennially relevant article from Adam Gurri that explores the commercial side of this cultural war: not only is criticism by people who lack group standing unlikely to create real change, but it can actually prove very lucrative to the most polarizing elements of society. From politicians to two-bit provocateurs, these figures gain recognition and actual income by stoking the fires of cultural warfare. Even, perhaps especially, when their actual work has little to commend itself, they cling to relevance by attracting criticism from those their bases see as “enemies.” Gurri’s recommendation seems to square with Vallier’s broader point about standing for criticism: “The question you should ask is who the right kind of person would be to make a particular criticism for a particular audience, at that particular time.” The idea of social trust helps make this clearer—the question a writer, pundit, or just a responsible social media user should in fact ask is “Does my statement, regardless of accuracy or logical coherence, actually persuade my audience, or does it simply further define my in-group and thus increase distrust?
To me, this seems to be the most relevant message of the book for the media and for most citizens—social trust, and likely political trust, as well, can be strengthened by the everyday choices individuals and media members make in what to say and how to say it.
The weakening of trust means there is always a market for speech that plays into people’s fears about the other side. A particularly flourishing genre seems to be “explainers” that purport to describe the motivations of some “enemy” in the most unflattering terms possible. Those who support abortion rights may be pleased to read that their opponents are motivated by misogyny, and those who oppose the welfare state my relish descriptions of their adversaries as being bent on destroying non-governmental civil society, but neither of these descriptions seem effective at communicating how different camps actively think about their policy position. As a result, they garner clicks but at the cost of diminishing actual trust, doing nothing to advance the principles of compromise or mutual understanding. If you believe an opponent’s primary motivation is odious, it will be much more difficult to work with them than if you believe they simply have a different set of values or understanding of likely outcomes.
The inevitable response is that some people do indeed have odious motivations—this is true, but ascribing the worst motivations to every group that disagrees with you makes it harder, not easier, to identify those views which are actually morally repugnant.
A Defense of Property Rights in the Name of Political Trust
In terms of governmental policy, particularly in regard to property rights and the welfare state, Vallier provides useful analytical tools but less in the way of specific recommendations. His argument for defending property includes four compelling prongs: property and even some market transactions predate the state and thus are likely to be publicly justified under a wide variety of social setups; private property is generally helpful for maintaining economic growth, which is a publicly-justified and widely-shared goal; some property is necessary to support other fundamental rights, like free association; and markets likely increase trust by putting different groups of people into close proximity and allowing them to make mutually beneficial deals.
All four arguments are convincing to an extent, and Vallier’s solutions, such as reducing zoning that restricts property use and establishing more universal and transparent (rather than targeted and potentially opaque) welfare programs, are laudable. However, I am unconvinced that his justifications apply to all manner of private property—and as a result, his later arguments that expanding state involvement or taxation of these sorts of property would be unjustifiable coercion seem less valid.
It is insufficiently demonstrated that, for example, privately-owned utilities are justified under any of these premises—indeed, it seems at least from a cursory view of public utilities that effective, publicly-owned electricity and water systems could improve political trust by establishing a beneficial relationship to a government agency. Indeed, public utilities are a feature of many high-trust societies, and experiments like the Rural Electrification Act in the United States seems to indicate that they can accompany trust building and economic growth and be publicly justified.
Perhaps more fundamentally, I also wonder about the private, fee-simple, perpetual ownership of land, which seems to be a phenomenon limited to certain societies and enforced and recognized primarily by state actions like the Enclosure Acts in England or the Homestead and Dawes Acts in the United States. Similar to utilities, public land ownership has been demonstrably consistent with economic growth in places like Singapore and Hong Kong. And the payment of land rents also seems less likely to further trust than the purchase of goods or services, because the necessity of the landowner’s part in providing the good is unclear to the land user—it is easier to imagine enjoying land without the services of a landlord than to imagine acquiring shoes without the services of a shoemaker.
However, as hopefully even these doubts make clear, Vallier has provided a useful framework for thinking about these questions and analytical tools that can help us vet new approaches to property, and indeed to each question he brings up. The overall trend of the last several years toward distrust and polarization is undeniable, and Vallier offers a compelling explanation of why it is happening. At times, his position may seem overly sunny, as he defends the broad strokes of liberal democracy and argues against the most radical proposed changes; in reality, however, Trust in a Polarized Age makes a substantial contribution to the discussion. Whether Vallier’s limited reforms are sufficient to restore trust and break the cycle, the attention he draws to trust and public justification are a lens through which basically any policy proposal can be fruitfully examined. To my mind, this makes the book a valuable tool to build the foundation for any substantive discussion on how both policymakers and commentators can contribute to a more unified, trusting future.
Matthew has worked in one-on-one education since 2010. He’s currently a tutor in economics, history, math, and English, while providing occasional online commentary.
He lives in Montana.