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COVID-19 and the Trust Deficit

Years of polling in the United States and Europe show that public confidence in institutions has been falling, fueling partisan polarization and political paralysis. But now that the COVID-19 pandemic has left us with no choice but to rely on our institutions, the question of whether trust can be restored has become paramount.

PALO ALTO/MILAN – With the world in the grip of a deadly, disruptive pandemic, it should be obvious that scientific, medical, economic, political, and other varieties of expertise are crucial to addressing the attendant health, economic, and psychological effects. Unfortunately, what should be obvious is not.

The problem, as we warned back in 2012, is that we are living in an era of policymaking paralysis. “Government, business, financial, and academic elites are not trusted,” we wrote. “Lack of trust in elites is probably healthy at some level, but numerous polls indicate that it is in rapid decline, which surely increases citizens’ reluctance to delegate authority to navigate an uncertain global economic environment.” Change those last words to “navigate a highly chaotic public-health and economic shock,” and the statement loses none of its relevance today.

A World of Distrust

Although there are many reasons for the lack of trust, a key element is ordinary citizens’ belief that elites are placing their own interests above broader shared values. Beginning in May 2015, an Economist-YouGov poll has surveyed a panel of 5,000 Americans on issues relating to politics, elections, and trust in institutions. For example, when asked that September, “Do you think the US economic system favors the wealthy or is fair to most Americans?,” 66% of the panelists said the system favors the wealthy, while only 24% said it is fair to most Americans.

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