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Building a Culture of Trust in Politics

Without trust, there can be no hope of real and lasting positive change in the world. Our challenges are too big to solve on our own. We must be able to work together and collaborate on an unprecedented scale to build a stable economy, restore health to our communities, and manage the tremendous global changes unfolding around us.

And yet we live in a world filled with manipulative messages, the very presence of which threatens the foundation of democracy. From a very early age, our hidden motivations (in the form of emotional tendencies and networks of associated knowledge embedded in our unconscious minds) have been exploited to trick us into thinking we need things that we don't.

And now this pervasiveness of sophisticated commercial marketing has corroded the fabric of political engagement. We no longer trust most of the information we receive. Our skepticism is a cultural pathology - a deeply rooted belief that those in power are trying to trick us. Unfortunately, this distrust is grounded in the truth that we have indeed been tricked many times in the past.

The existence of skepticism is a matter of significance that needs to be addressed in our politics. Lip service is often paid to the need for greater voter turnout, but no solutions are offered that address the malaise of distrust that has stood in the way of progress for decades.

I believe that a culture of trust is desperately needed if we are to address the looming challenges of the modern world. People need to be able to identify deceptive practices and stop them in their tracks, while also having the skills necessary to communicate their real concerns authentically so that others can trust in them.

A starting point in the cultivation of trust is to name the strategy that undermines it. One that has been around for years, but is not in common use, is the acronym "FUD" which stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - the standard tactics for deceiving and manipulating people. FUD can be found every time that an insecurity is used to push a product ("Use our acne medication or you won't be attractive"). It is present in misinformation campaigns that undermine legitimate authorities ("Climate has changed in the past, so you can't trust those who claim it is changing now due to human causes."). And it is the basic premise of public relations and marketing firms that fill our world with mixed messages throughout the mass media every day.

Where do FUD practitioners learn their trade? Is there a FUD University that teaches the tactics of deception and redirection? Perhaps not. But these skills are widely deployed and are threatening the public confidence that forms the basis of modern democracy.

What we need is an antidote to FUD - a collection of skills and practices that nullify deception and transcend it. As we move into the 21st Century, we must create new tools for countering deception that instill trust in our capacity as a people to govern ourselves. We need to be able to deconstrust spin in the media so that hidden messages are made explicit. This will require us to think differently about truth and perception. We'll have to understand the psychology of meaning and the nature of our hidden motivations. We need the opposite of FUD, an Open University that teaches the tactics of honesty and authenticity.

The only viable response to FUD is openness and transparency. Our hidden tendencies can only be exploited if they remain hidden. It is vital that we democratize the production of political communications, starting at the most basic level of knowing our own minds. We need a cognitive toolbox - tools for understanding what's going on inside our heads - to be able to see how communication works within us. Only then can we truly open up the production process and invite the public to participate.

This goes much deeper than merely changing the content of our messages in political communications. Rampant distrust in a culture keeps a populace from being able to discern truth for themselves, regardless of how accurate a message might be. Instead, we have to restructure the methods of communication themselves. For example, most people are well aware that digital media can be modified to make things that are fake seem real. We've all experienced this at the movies many times in our lives. So there is a need to make the creation of digital media more transparent - as websites like YouTube do when users typically know what is real because they are making it themselves. This transparency makes it possible for the process of media production to be scrutinized.

The same can be said for other political processes. Currently most legislation is created behind closed doors and under the veil of technocratic language. The obscurity of this process - combined with the fact that bills have been used in the past for purposes different from what we were told (think "Patriot Act" or "No Child Left Behind") - and you get a recipe for widespread skepticism about the legislative process. No wonder so many people disengage!

It is time to start the difficult work of building a better kind of politics, one that works in the 21st Century. We have to open up the political system and make it more participatory. People have to feel like they can take ownership and engage the political world with a mandate for openness and transparency.

The age of elite democracy is behind us. It doesn't serve us any longer. In the days ahead, we'll need a populist politics that recognizes the value of active participation, one that promotes inclusiveness for everyone. Such an open political machine will only work if its "operating system" is visible. We can only trust in the system if we are able to see how it works and make modifications to it when it doesn't. This is analogous to what software developers call "open source" where the source code of a piece of software is open for others to see. When the source code is hidden, it is impossible to truly know what is going on inside the black box of the machine.

The same is true for our politics. Democracy is only real when the political source code is open for everyone to see. Building a culture of trust will require that we get to the heart of this problem, and make visible the methods of production for all the world to see.

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Joe Brewer

Joe Brewer is co-founder and research director of Culture2 Inc., a culture design lab for social good. He is a former fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a think tank founded by George Lakoff to analyze political discourse for the progressive movement.

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