WASHINGTON, DC – A crisis of public confidence in civic institutions – including governments, legislatures, courts, and the media – is a central factor in the rise of Donald Trump and figures like him around the world. And so long as the crisis persists, such leaders will continue to resonate with voters, regardless of electoral outcomes.
The crisis is not new. A 2007 study, commissioned for a United Nations forum, showed a “pervasive” pattern: over the last four decades, nearly all of the so-called developed, industrialized democracies have been experiencing a decrease in the public trust in government. In the 1990s, even countries long known for strong civic trust, such as Sweden and Norway, recorded a decline.
In the United States, Gallup’s latest survey of “confidence in institutions” shows double-digit percentage declines in trust since the 1970s (or the earliest available measurement) for 12 of 17 institutions, including banks, Congress, the presidency, schools, the press, and churches; of the remaining institutions, confidence increased modestly for four, and significantly for just one: the military.
As a social anthropologist who trained in Eastern Europe in the waning years of communism, I observed firsthand what happens to a society devoid of civic trust. People viewed formal institutions with profound skepticism and retreated into social silos: informal, close-knit (and closed) circles of friends, family, and allies on which they relied for news, information, and much else. Young people saw little reason to invest in their future, and their elders succumbed to suicide and substance abuse at alarming rates.
There are similarities to some alarming trends in the US, Europe, and elsewhere today. According to a major study by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton last year, the mortality rate for middle-aged, less-educated white men in the US has been surging, in what some observers have called a wave of “despair deaths.”
At the same time, American millennials (those born between 1982 and 2004) are postponing marriage and home or car purchases, with many telling pollsters that the postponement will be permanent. They are residing with their parents at rates not seen since 1940, and many are eking out a living through a patchwork of “gigs” that provide neither benefits nor job security.
As a result, a growing cohort of people are identifying as outsiders. Doors that were once open to them have been shut, and their faith in public institutions to represent their interests has significantly eroded. Many look to anti-establishment movements and figures, such as Trump, for salvation.
This same tendency is apparent in the anti-elite, anti-system rage that has erupted across Europe, reflected in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum; the right-wing Alternative for Germany Party’s continued rise; far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen’s strong showing in the French presidential campaign; and the Austrian elections this year, where for the first time since World War II no “establishment” candidates made it to the final ballot.
In the US, as the 2016 presidential campaign got underway, many voters clearly believed – not without reason – that the system was “rigged.” But democracy and distrust can be a dangerous compound, because people confronting complex political and economic issues do not always direct their anger at the proper target.
Profound economic and technological changes in recent decades – together with privatization, deregulation, digitization, and financialization – have further empowered elites and enabled them to hone their use of political influencing via think tanks and philanthropies; shadow lobbying, workarounds that subvert standard processes; the media; campaign finance; and stints in “public service” to advance their interests. This “new corruption,” though usually technically legal, is virtually nontransparent – and thus highly corrosive of public trust.
This, along with widening income inequality, helps explain how voters can be swayed by a candidate like Trump, especially when they live, as many increasingly do, in their own information universes. Facebook and Twitter algorithms confirm a group’s biases and screen out contrary viewpoints – and even facts. The digital age has created an insularity that, ironically, is not unlike that fostered under communism.
The result is frighteningly familiar to anyone who has studied Eastern European history. Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump harnesses futility and anger, exploits nostalgic yearning and nationalism, and finds convenient scapegoats in vulnerable people such as immigrants. As in Russia, where gays and other minorities have been officially targeted, America’s disenchanted are being encouraged to harass and demonize already marginalized groups.
Trust is the lifeblood of a thriving society, and much of the West needs an emergency transfusion. But its political systems will remain on life support until their entrenched elites feel sufficiently vulnerable to stop ignoring the needs of those who have been left behind.