As the most consequential election year in recent history looms, a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life’’ — one I’ve seen dozens of times before — landed differently.
There was a run on the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. George Bailey was trying desperately to stop his customers from pulling out all of their cash or, even worse, from taking up an offer by nemesis Henry F. Potter to buy them out for 50 cents on the dollar. That would give Potter control of the building and loan in addition to the town’s big bank. If that happened, Bailey warned, “there’ll never be another decent house built in this town.’’
“You’re thinking of this place all wrong, as if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here,’’ Bailey said, gesturing toward one customer and then another. “Your money’s in Joe’s house, right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others.’’
But the most convincing part of Bailey’s plea wasn’t about distrusting Potter. It was about trusting each other. To get through the crisis, Bailey said, “we’ve got to have faith in each other.’’
It was that trust among the citizens of Bedford Falls that saved the day — and their community. They may have distrusted the bank with their money, but they knew their neighbors were good for it.
A similar dynamic is at play in our nation today. Trust in our institutions is at a record low. According to the Pew Research Center, while nearly 4 out of 5 Americans surveyed trusted the federal government to do what’s right in 1964, by 2023 that number had dropped to less than 1 in 5. Meanwhile, another recent Pew poll found that nearly half of Americans link declining social trust to the belief that people are not as reliable as they used to be.
That dangerous combination could tear our nation apart.
As Bowling Green State University professor Kevin Vallier wrote in his book “Trust in a Polarized Age’’: “If members of a society do not trust one another, then they have little reason to take the risks required to create, build, and sustain good institutional structures.’’
The last few years alone have borne this out.
During a deadly pandemic, the nation divided bitterly along ideological lines at a time we most needed to come together to protect each other. Government institutions and medical data were dismissed, and the presence or absence of a face mask became a political statement and reason enough to turn on one another.
Views on voting rights are too often shaped not by the need to protect the constitutional right but by whose votes are being suppressed or expanded. Educators teaching our nation’s history in an inclusive and accurate way are deemed nefarious indoctrinators. And I could write a dissertation about the level of vitriol I face as a member of the media, the so-called “enemy of the people.’’
It’s as if life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were a zero-sum game. For one person to have them, someone else’s must be taken away. How do we convince people that it’s simply not the American way? How can we learn that we can hold our ideological views and also respect the humanity of those with whom we disagree?
The answer is complex but there are lessons from history when Americans found ways to unite even in the most turbulent of times. Part of that, of course, comes from leaders who encourage us to trust and unite.
Why do quotes like President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’’ or President John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,’’ still resonate today? Because they demonstrate that without unity, our democratic experience fails.
But we don’t have to look back that far. In my lifetime, presidents from across the political spectrum have demonstrated that ethos when Americans needed it most. Ronald Reagan did it when he spoke to the nation about how the space shuttle Challenger’s crew “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.’’ George W. Bush did it when he went to Ground Zero in New York following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and held a megaphone in one hand and put his other arm around a first responder and said, “I can hear you.’’ Barack Obama did it when he began singing “Amazing Grace’’ during his eulogy of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine people slain in the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and the church sang with him. Joe Biden did when, honoring the victims of COVID-19 on the eve of his inauguration, he said, “it’s hard sometimes to remember. But that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation.’’
This is a trait we must consider carefully in every political candidate on the ballot in 2024: Can they help us come together, to trust each other? There’s far more at stake than a little building and loan.
Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @KimberlyEAtkins.
Image Credits: public domain