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We have a trust problem. That is very bad news.
Around the world, trust is low and getting lower. History reminds us what happens next tends to be messy. But we can head that off now, if we really want to.
I keep a close eye on trust. As I’ve written before, trust is a currency. It’s a stuff you trade for other stuff. In that sense, it’s a form of capital. It’s also a foundation. It’s the thing on which you build relationships, set up and maintain institutions, launch programs, plan the future, and more. High trust ought to be welcomed, with an asterisk. While you want high levels of trust, you also want people to be skeptical and critical rather than thoughtlessly deferential to power. But without sufficient levels of trust, it is hard to build solidarity and the things we need to live together—like social programs, infrastructure, regular and fair elections, and the like. At the same time, distrust can lead to reform. Or disaster.
The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer is out (the full Canada results will follow in early March). As much of the world worries about rising prices and potential recession, researchers found 89 percent of global respondents are concerned about job loss and 74 percent are worried about inflation. Those worries are what Edelman terms “personal economic fears.” The big stuff. Then there’s the “existential societal fears.” The really big stuff. While 76 percent of people are worried about climate change, 72 percent are worried about nuclear war, followed by 67 who are concerned about food shortages and 66 percent who have the same worries about energy supplies.
Given those concerns, it’s no surprise that respondents in 24 of 28 countries hit all-time lows in their belief that they and their family will be better off in five years—just 40 percent said yes, a drop of ten points since 2022. That’s the global average. In Canada, a mere 28 percent believed they’d end up ahead in half a decade. In the U.K., it was 23 percent. In Japan, it was 9 percent.
In recent years, trust in government has fallen, with more people trusting business than the state. People distrust the information they get and the leaders who give it to them. As we’ve seen in the past, trust and distrust breaks down across class lines—yes, class. It exists, despite so many popular narratives and assumptions in Canada and the United States to the contrary. Higher income earners are more trusting than lower income earners. On balance, across 27 countries, the top 25 percent of earners average 64 percent trust in non-governmental organizations, businesses, government, and the media, compared to 49 percent of the bottom 25 percent of earners. In Canada, that divide is 53 percent compared to 47 percent, while 60 percent of the country believes it is more divided than in the past.
It would be surprising to learn that trust doesn’t have an income and class story behind it. The working class has been abandoned by government and mainstream political parties (and media) for decades. Why would you trust institutions that don’t serve you? Why would you trust a system that has reduced your days to toiling just to survive, looking in the rear-view mirror at the “good times” that were never that great. Distrust, like trust, is earned. Especially since some, the investment class, are making off like bandits
As Edelman notes, low trust drives polarization—the number of people who perceive social, political, and economic divisions and believe they will persist. Canada finds itself polarized and close to the border of severe polarization. Now, polarization isn’t inherently bad. It’s become a toxic term because polarization has manifested itself, mostly on the right, in toxic ways as a rise in violence, greater expressions of hate, and soaring xenophobia. But polarization can also point to good-faith, deeply incompatible ways of seeing the world that can’t be reconciled in theory, even if they can be managed in practice. It is only when those forms become toxic that polarization becomes something more dangerous. It matters whether polarization is surmounted in practice, even if normative world views—that is, views about how things should be—can’t be sorted out.
It matters who are seen as being dividers, since that’s where people will expect to find solutions. Around the world, 62 percent of people find the rich and powerful to be “a dividing force that pulls people apart,” while just 20 percent find them to be a unifying force. That signals a class divide we ought to take seriously. Roughly the same number feel that way about hostile foreign governments, likely indicative of both genuine and reasonable foreign policy nervousness and the effects of sabre-rattling chauvinism that is driving global blocs towards something akin to a replay of the Cold War. Government leaders also get a net negative assessment (49/33), as do journalists/35).
As you’d expect from this data, polarization is found to further drive distrust, creating a negative feedback loop that reflects a weakened social fabric—which then further weakens it. That weakened fabric reflects a divide between groups, with only 30 percent of global respondents saying they would be willing to help someone who “strongly disagreed with me or my point of view.” A mere 20 percent would be willing to live in their neighbourhood or be willing to have them as a coworker. The report finds that another upshot of all of this is more fear. And more anxiety, anger, polarization, and, of course, distrust.
Trust is a proxy measurement. It picks up assessments of something else going on in the world. In this case, it’s clearly picking up, among other things, readings of whether people feel like they are getting a fair deal (they don’t and aren’t), whether they believe things will improve (they don’t), and who they blame for it (rich people, politicians, and journalists, among others). Stack on top of that widespread and growing existential fears and you’ve got a bad, bad situation that threatens to grow much, much worse. World historical events often follow from low-trust. They tend to be…unpleasant affairs that come about slowly and then all at once.
Addressing low trust requires structural material solutions. I say this all the time because we are so hesitant to talk about class and the redistribution of not just resources, but power and capacity. Changing class relations means empowering people to control their economy and their destiny, even while we redistribute resources to ensure no one whose suffering can be mitigated or eliminated must face unnecessary hardship. As long as I’m repeating myself here, I’ll do it once more to hammer home a key message: we, as a society, can address these issues now the hard way or wait and address them later the very hard way. It’s better to choose the former.