The storied political consultant, Paul Begala, once said that politics is show business for ugly people. Not this year. Because in 2024 politics is set to be the new rock and roll, with an unprecedented 4 billion people across the globe expected to vote in more than 60 elections. That’s almost half the world voting for representation that will shape the direction of our planet over the next decade and beyond.
In front of the electorate, the line-up is a veritable Glastonbury or Woodstock of political sounds. There are the legendary old timers with their whispering lyrics. Dynamic new acts shaking up the establishment. Enticing boybands and girlbands, keen to tell you change is coming. And of course, there are the tribute bands seeking to replicate the past chart-busting glories of others.
All of them, of course, are responding to – and in some cases actively exploiting – the melange of challenges society faces. War in Europe and the Middle East, conflict in Africa, and major regional tension in Asia. Disinformation. The promise and dystopian threat of AI, and unbounded and unabashed technological innovation. Inflation and the attendant cost of living misery that it brings in many large and legacy economies. Geopolitical competition between global superpowers. The rise of a multi-polar world. And of course, mass migration and its unwelcome sponsors, poverty and climate change.
Yet as wars rage, nations flex outward but look inward, leaders lament their own failure to address carbon emissions, and scientists tell us 2023 was indeed the hottest year ever, the political response appears as a mirror to the polarisation in society, with one feeding off the other, and creating a climate that pushes voters even further into their corners.
The 2024 super-poll of humanity comes after 15 years of a slow yet steady decoupling of the mass society from the professional classes, leaders, and those in power. It’s a phenomenon that at Edelman we have identified in each of those 15 years.
The result, today, is not just the de-coupling of two groups of people who may be living in the same country or countries, but two groups of people who are now living wholly different realities.
As a planet we may be richer, more technologically advanced, and better connected than at any point in our history, but, as this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer finds income inequality and trust inequality are inextricably linked in a moment of dangerous embrace. A problem not just for low-growth nations, but for the world’s fastest growing economies. A problem for all of planet earth.
In 2024 we found double-digit income-based trust inequality in 23 of the 28 countries in which we study these trends, that’s up from 21 countries twelve months ago.
Paradoxically, growth appears to be driving that income-based trust inequality. In India, for example, where the GDP is expected to grow 6.3 percent in 2024 and where the richest 1 percent own 40 percent of the total wealth, there is now an 11-point trust gap between low-income and high-income groups – up 5 points year on year. In China that income-based trust gap is now 17 points compared to GDP growth of 4.3 percent. In Saudi Arabia it’s 23 points on GDP growth of 4 percent.
Astonishingly, we found that globally less than half of people with low incomes trust their own electoral system (49 percent) and feel that their current government was fairly elected and is legitimate (49 percent). That compares to nearly two thirds of people with high incomes (64 percent at both).
In recent years, income-based trust inequality has expressed itself in everything from “eat the rich” narratives in popular culture to the rise of populism across societies. Those of us who thought that this was a temporary phenomenon where the pendulum would inevitably swing back were, it seems, not just wrong, but naïve and complacent.
But appreciating this context should not lead to a counsel of despair. Leaders can either accept this as the inexorable direction of history or act by responding to the legitimate concerns expressed by society without reaching for far-fetched populist promises.
The green transition, AI, and gene-based therapies may well be part of the answer to a more positive future that restores trust across society. Edelman Trust Barometer respondents are nearly twice as likely to say that innovation is poorly vs well managed. But when they do believe that institutions are managing innovation well, they are 27 points less likely to feel that society is leaving them behind. However, in a world of politicisation, polarisation, and populism, innovation optimists have a major communications job on their hands if they are going to change minds.
Because, as Richard Edelman writes this year, innovation does not transcend politicisation and populism. Rather it is already getting pulled firmly into that contested and combative world. That is why we must act: While innovation cannot be divorced from politics, it is not too late to protect it from populists and partisans.
To do so, we must embrace innovation. But above all, business and government must collectively communicate their potential and share their benefits in smarter, more sophisticated ways. Since 2015, there has been a 15-point surge in people globally saying they would trust business with technology-led changes more if there was greater partnership with government.
Whatever the challenge, if our institutions are to help close that gap, they must listen rather than assume, engage in dialogue rather than talk down, and cooperate rather than just compete.
If ever there was a year when all that mattered, this is that year.