"One of the reasons conspiracy theories have proliferated over the last half century is that they have so often been proven correct," says Assumption's Vaughan.
It may never hurt to have a healthy dose of skepticism. But, a willingness to accept -- or immerse oneself in -- mistrust has been shown to weaken civic structure in other cultures. Russia and some countries in the Middle East have suffered from a lack of transparency, along with great divides between the haves and have-nots. Those cultures also have long histories of conspiracy-mongering and little trust in their governments.
The United States was intended to be different.
"America's ability to question and, if necessary, change our government made such (conspiracy-minded) thoughts here against the grain," says Villanova's Arnold.
Despite our weakened faith in government and institutions, the country chugs along. But what of the future? "I wish I could be optimistic, but I really can't," says Reiss, the San Diego psychiatrist. "There's so much power behind making things destructive. It's really in the service and to the advantage of the politicians on both sides to keep people in a somewhat scared state."
"(Consensus) is not dead, but we're in the danger zone," says Avlon. "There are real costs to hyperpartisanship. Most importantly it becomes ultimately a threat to self-governance -- it's stopping us from being able to solve the serious problems we face."
"Righteous Mind" author Haidt, however, sees a reason for hope -- though not immediately.
We're stuck for probably the next five years, he says. After that, events could intercede. We could face economic collapse; we could have total victory by one party. But the most intriguing, he observes, is the passage of generations.
"We went from the Greatest Generation, which was the most civic-minded because they fought World War II together ... to the baby boomers, who were the worst at working together because their foundational experience was splitting apart to fight the left-right battle," says Haidt. "We'll soon be moving on to the millennial generation, which is marked by a reluctance to make moral judgments."
That has its own drawbacks, he adds, "but some tolerance and reluctance to judge might be just what we need in the 2020s."
Until then, however, there will be no golden age of understanding, no rebirth of trust. No, for now, we're stuck with the system we have, the noise it creates, and the voices in our heads.