Liberal democracies find themselves in an alarming situation. The fallout from the Great Recession not only shook the foundations of their economies, but also their citizens’ faith in the so-called Western post-war order. Over a ten-year period, we witnessed an economic and social fracturing that few anticipated nor understood. Then the virus arrived.
There was a brief moment when the Covid-19 pandemic presented an opportunity for those tattered bonds to be repaired through leadership and shared purpose. Yet, any short-term dividends were quickly squandered. And the potential that a global battle against an invisible biological enemy would help heal national — and international — divides and rekindle trust in institutions disappeared, too. Instead, as the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer makes clear, Western democracies are weathering a period of entrenched polarisation and division.
The biggest losers in trust in this year’s survey are some of the world’s most prominent democracies, including Germany (down 7 points); Australia and the Netherlands (both down 6 points); and the United States and South Korea (both down 5 points). These numbers would be less stark if it weren’t for the juxtaposition against those seeing the greatest gains in trust: China (up 11 points), the United Arab Emirates (up 9 points) and Thailand (up 5 points).
The United States, with its historic mantle of freedom and democracy, now finds itself with a trust divergence with China of a record 40 points. It is a divergence not only significant for these countries themselves, but one with potentially profound geopolitical consequences across the globe.
But trust is, of course, a complex notion. Too much could indicate a blind and unquestioning faith in institutions unworthy of that level of trust, or be indicative of other factors like fear. And despite plummeting trust in Western institutions, only 33 percent of respondents in 21 democratic countries think that centrally managed economies do a better job than free-market ones.
Trust provides institutions with a license to operate, a permission space to innovate, and the moral authority to implement policies that deliver socio-economic progress over time.
That said, the low trust levels revealed by our study demonstrate an unprecedented challenge facing the West: legitimacy. Trust provides institutions with a license to operate, a permission space to innovate, and the moral authority to implement policies that deliver socio-economic progress over time. These are critical advantages that all liberal democracies desire. So, the fact that, in most democracies, institutions are distrusted should trigger a serious reckoning by politicians and policymakers across the West.
Data from the Trust Barometer shows that the actions of politicians and the media are increasingly driven by short-terms gains, at the expense of impartiality, honesty and calm civic discourse. Indeed, two thirds of those surveyed think that political leaders and journalists knowingly mislead the public.
The result is that government leaders and journalists are seen to be the least trusted societal leaders today, with less than half of global respondents trusting either (government leaders at 42 percent and journalists at 46 percent), according to our survey. Equally troubling, when debate is the cornerstone of the democratic model, is that 64 percent of respondents say that their societies have lost the ability to calmly debate and discuss issues about which they disagree.
The big question for the West is this: are there leaders with enough agency, energy, and resolve within institutions to lead in such a way that re-builds trust?
To do so will require many Western countries to move away from a model of electoral maximisation achieved by whatever means and toward compromise and shared vision. Political leaders reimagining a radical new centre in a world of polarized ideologies is far from easy, but the alternative does not look good.
Political leaders reimagining a radical new centre in a world of polarized ideologies is far from easy, but the alternative does not look good.
The gap between those who trust the institutions that serve society and those that don’t is widening. The group of people who feel the system does not work is growing. We have already experienced one populist wave wash over liberal economies. Do nothing, and we shouldn’t be surprised when the second wave crashes over our head.
Ed Williams is President and CEO, Edelman Europe, Middle East & Africa.
A version of this article first appeared on Edelman.com