Why Europe has stopped trusting

Earlier this month, Luigi di Maio, the 31 year frontman of the anti-establishment 5 Star Party won over 24% of the electoral vote and became the most powerful political force in Italy. For the second time in less than two years, a major western election has been fought and won by the swelling powers of populism.

For now at least, the 5 Star Movement are a long way from actually governing. Neither Di Maio, nor Matteo Salvini, the leader of far right Lega Nord party have enough seats to form a government. And the chances of a coalition emerging between Di Maio and Salvini are still very slim. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t just pull off one of the most comfortable victories of any protest party in Europe.

Indeed, what Di Maio, Salvini and his right wing affiliates did wasn’t so much win last week’s election, but prevent the mainstream from doing so – draining influence from the political centre and offering a supposedly clean break from politics as usual.

Why Italian voters turned their backs on the political establishment last Wednesday is hard to know. To some, it was simply a reflection of the Democratic Party (PD’s) growing unpopularity across Italy and a backlash against the widely perceived personal vanities of Matteo Renzi- the country’s former Premier. To others however, it points to a much bigger problem – the widening disconnect and mounting distrust between the citizen and state. Voters in Europe have grown restless. And it is the political centre which is currently paying the biggest price. Di Maio’s emphatic victory and the PD’s slow fall from grace is just the latest proof of this.

The 5 Star movement built their entire election campaign around the principle of rejection. Di Maio, like his influential predecessor Beppe Grillo, rejected basic aspects of the political system, calling for the dissolution of parliament and a shift towards a referendum based style of governance. The willingness of protest parties to challenge key pillars of the democratic system and commit themselves to outlandish policy gaffes is nothing new, nor anything to be necessarily worried about. What is worrying however, is that these ideas are actually being listened to. What’s more they are being backed and championed as realistic political alternatives on a scale that was unimaginable only a few years before.

Italy’s election, like Donald Trump’s presidency and France’s flirtation with a far-right Le Penn government, has proven once again just how contested our democratic norms have become.

The appeal of the middle ground is waning, and no matter how resilient liberal democracies have been in previous centuries, it’s hard not to feel that in this one, our political system has slipped into slow state of crisis.

The reason this crisis feels so acute is because we are not just dealing with one, but with multiple. What’s more, they seemed to have reached their breaking points at precisely the same moment. The first; a crisis in political representation, where our elected officials and central rule making bodies are failing on a more consistent basis to deliver on their promises and break through mounting democratic gridlock. At the same time however, the mainstream media, on whom we depend even more when our politicians fail us, are facing a similar crisis of legitimacy. All the while, these anxieties are being transmitted, shared and amplified through our online networks, and, instead of confronting the views that we find destructive, we retreat further into the security of our own. The result? A perfect storm of uncertainties and a feeling of disillusionment so profound that it has come to define an entire political era.

From the Italian elections, to the surge of the Hungarian, Polish and Swedish far right and onto the shock election of Donald Trump, what do all the seminal moments in the post-truth calendar have in common? They all took place within and indeed depended upon a pervasive culture of distrust. Distrust of politicians, distrust of the ‘dead tree press’ and distrust of the phoney expert- who, according to President Trump, ‘will say anything to keep the rigged system in place.’[1] But so what? Politicians have never ranked particularly highly in terms of trustworthiness and confidence in government institutions has been declining since the final, crook-denying days of President Richard Nixon. So what, if anything, distinguishes this current slump in trust from any other?

The answer, this article suggests, lies in the sheer intensity of the uncertainty and cynicism that this crisis has unleashed. What we are witnessing here, is something far greater and far less containable than Donald Trump, Luigi Di Maio or any other populist leader currently riding the wave of distrust. What we are facing is in fact much worse; a culture of suspicion that extends beyond traditional political fault lines and casts doubt on all forms of public life. According to Edelman’s ‘Trust Barometer’ over two thirds of countries in 2017 were classified as ‘distrusters’, meaning that levels of trust in government institutions have dipped below 50%.[2] This is a three point decrease from 2016. But compare this to the average of 80% trust in the US government during the early 1960s and even the moderate 60% levels in the early 2000s and this is a truly astonishing figure.

The favoured explanation, at least within Western scholarly circles is that this crisis of trust is the result of a seemingly ‘toxic’ combination of technocratic driven policy disasters and the emergence of a mutually dishonest political-media hybrid.[3] The Iraq War, the parliamentary expense scandal, austerity, phone-hacking debacle, the shameful legacy Jimmy Saville left at the BBC and the mishandling of the Grenfell Tower fire are just some of the scandals that have tarnished the reputation of the British government in recent years.

Nevertheless the global financial crash of 2008 stands out as a particularly critical and legitimacy sapping moment the post-truth era. Banks were bailed out, homes were lost and, as Stephen Griffin has highlighted, a new virulently anti-political discourse was spawned.[4] When the very institutions responsible for steering the global economy to the brink of meltdown were rescued and their directors allowed to carry on with the same impunity as before, then the result was not just collective sense that the economic system is broken, but the conviction that the entire system is broken.

What is interesting about all the countries which ranked lowest in terms of public satisfaction and faith in their institutions, is that they have one important and perhaps surprising feature in common. They are all democracies. Democracies, which currently lack the key ingredient needed for their survival; trust. This is not how we typically expect democratic systems to function. Shouldn’t freedom of expression, access to information, ability to play an active and critical role in public life translate into a moderate or least workable level of trust in government? Why don’t we have faith in a system which, since its ancient conception was built to be ‘fair’ and ‘just’? Isn’t ‘trust’ what we pay for the liberties and privileges of living in a modern democracy? Maybe, but that’s not what global trends seem to be telling us.

According to a 2017 Edelman’s poll, 53% of people surveyed from across 28 countries reported their distrust of central government and belief that the system as a whole was ‘failing them.’ And of those respondents who distrusted the ‘system’, fears over globalisation, technical progress, corruption, immigration and the failure of government to protect them and their families from the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis that were cited amongst the most common reasons for their mistrust. Trust and confidence are slippery political concepts and clearly not an inbuilt feature or commensurate outcome of democratic governance. They are built, according to one OCED policy brief, from ‘fair and reliable public services.’[5]

‘Public service’ is an equally misunderstood term, and one which is often confused with the mere existence of a democratic political structure, or the provision of basic civil liberties. In its most basic form public service means action and measurable outcome. But it also means the delivery of promises, and the expectation that your elected official will always and unconditionally be working in your interests. But the substantial majority, (75%) of respondents across all 28 countries surveyed by Edelman in 2017 felt that this system wasn’t built to serve them, but to ‘accumulate wealth’, assert power and undermine the interests of hardworking ‘ordinary’ people.[6] Instead of narrowing the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, governments are now seen to be supporting ‘their own’ and silencing the majority.

The problem, therefore, runs deeper than our elected politicians and has gone beyond a simple ‘mass v class’ conflict. [7] We don’t just distrust our politicians but seem to have grown cynical of an entire political system. Of course distrust of the governing elite is not a new feature of the political landscape. What’s different today, is that this longstanding mistrust of politicians ‘to do the right thing’ and accurate perception of political elites being unable to deliver on their promises has coincided with a declining trust in other institutions; institutions which have historically held the state accountable for such promises and kept the rusting wheels of democracy rolling. In other words; our media.

Scepticism towards traditional media, both newspaper and broadcast, has been increasing steadily over the past two decades. This culminated last year with only 6% of Americans and, with the lowest rating in Europe, 22% of Brits trusting the mainstream media .[8] According to 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer Global results, only 43 % of respondents trust the media (5% less than in 2016) making it the second least trusted institution after government. [9]

The way we consume news has also changed dramatically over the last decade. In 2017, with 3.77 billion internet users, online sites have rapidly outstripped television as a primary source of news. [10] From Sweden to South Korea more and more smart phone owners now receive their news from social media rather than professional news sites. The overwhelming majority of Americans also consume their news on Facebook. Ironically however, social media remains the least trusted news source across all categories, with only 12% of Americans actually trusting the information they consume. [11]

In Britain, this erosion of trust feels particularly hard to accept. As a country with a long history of independent journalism we tend to think of institutions like the BBC and Reuters as instinctively trustworthy and unbiased. Recent research suggests however, that their reputations are far from unshakable. Just under half of British people now don’t trust these institutions to report with balance, fairness, and accuracy.[12] Indeed, the BBC has faced more accusations of bias in the last year than in any other. It’s coverage of Brexit for example has been accused of being too quick to accept some of the wild claims made by both sides of the campaign. The ‘Leave’ Campaign’ pledge to fund an extra £350 million a week to the NHS is one of the more outlandish promises that wasn’t scrutinised carefully until after the referendum. Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor faced similar accusations of inaccurate and partisan reporting of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his views on ‘shoot to kill’ terror policies.[13] Claims of bias reporting dominated the U.S election as well, from the supposed ‘fake news’ agenda being waged against Donald Trump by CNN, The New York Times and other liberal leaning institutions, to the accusations that the candidate Bernie Sanders was either negatively framed or under reported during his run for the Democratic nomination. Whether there are any truth to these accusations is almost besides the point. The problem runs deeper and requires us to confront two of the most perplexing features of the post-truth landscape; the impulse to congregate with the ‘like minded’ and the ease with which we dismiss the views and ‘facts’ which that challenge our own.

As Nick Barron has argued, the root cause of the post-truth world is not the lack of trust in the media per se, but rather the growing trust we place in ‘someone like me’. This tendency to retreat into the comfort of the like minded echo-chambers has two significant consequences. First, it makes it possible to avoid interacting and engaging with disconfirming information, and secondly it produces tribes and like- minded clusters, who, contrary to what they may claim, are actually less likely to hold power to account and more likely to consume ‘fake news’ uncritically.

The contradiction is striking, but it is nonetheless characteristic our current political culture. What’s worse is that this cycle of cynicism and mistrust seems to be endlessly self producing. The more we retreat into like minded eco-chambers, the more we abandon the process of critical thinking and up placing more trust in social media algorithms than human experts. The result, is an electorate that is almost immune to counter argument.

How many times during the weeks leading up to the US election did Donald Trump face what should have been campaign ending scandals? There were countless. But he won nonetheless. Why? First of all he offered change not continuity, and secondly he convinced his voters that he was was one of them, part of their tribe- or ‘the common man’ as The New York Times put it.>[14] Given that 71% of Americans now have more faith in reformers than in defenders of the status quo, the odds now seem like they were always stacked in the President’s favour.[15] Indeed, as Naomi Klein has pointed out in her recent study No Is Not Enough, President Trump was only half joking when he said ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I still wouldn’t lose any voters.’ [16]

Whats’ more, is that according to former Brexit strategist Dominic Cummings, this tribalism and fetish to trust ‘someone like me’, is not confined to any particular social group. The only difference, Cummings suggests is that the ‘educated’ are more willing to deny what is actually happening. ‘They back their gang’ he explains, ‘and then fool themselves that they have reached their views by their own sensible and intelligent reasoning.’[17]

The internet has undoubtedly amplified this trend, but it did not create them. Neither can we conclude that our politicians and journalists are quantitively more dishonest now than they were 10 years ago. Anxieties and frustrations at ‘the system’ have always been a feature of political life. What has changed therefore, is the intensity at which these uncertainties are being felt, the speed at which they are being transmitted and the feeling that ‘crisis’ is is being fought on not just one but multiple fronts.

Solving these problems presents an immense challenge. Democracy depends on its citizens arguing constructively, and until we are forced to leave our eco-chambers and engage in some degree of critical thinking then there is little hope that trust will ever return to public life.

The advance of populism, however, is not inevitable. And as shakable as the political establishment feels in this current climate, we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from the triumph of Italian populism. Trust has been drained from our political system, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t salvageable. Building a more accountable media, transparent political system and two way stream of public communication will be the first of many steps required to restore faith in our institutions.

It may take generations to build and only a few seconds to break, but trust is too important and too integral to the future of our political system to abandon altogether. The fight back must start now.

[1] Catherine Happer, ‘The Post-Trust Crisis of Mainstream Media, Glasgow Sociology, (2016)

[2] 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, Global results, Slide 11, www.edelman.com/research.

[3]Matthew D’Ancona, Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight It (London, 2017), p. 37.
Jane Suiter, ’Post-truth Politics’, Political Insight (2016), pp- 25- 27.

[4] Stephen M Griffin, ‘Trump Trust and the Future of the Constitutional Order’, Maryland Law Review 77 (2017), pp1-16.

[5] OESD, “Trust in Government”, www.oecd.org/gov/trust-in-government.htm Home/Directorate for Public Governance/Trust in Government.

[6] 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, Global Results, HYPERLINK “www.edelman.com/; http://www.edelman.com; Richard Edelman, “An Implosion of Trust”, Edelman Trust Barometer, 2017 Executive Summary,”www.edelman.com/; www.edelman.com

[7] Richard Edelman, “An Implosion of Trust”, Edelman Trust Barometer, 2017 Executive Summary, “www.edelman.com/; www.edelman.com

[8]https://www.rt.com/document/57152b17c46188e26c8b460c/amp, accessed 20 July 2017.

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/sep/24/trust-in-media-first-casualty-post-factual-war-corbyn-trump, accessed 20 July 2017.

[9] 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, Global results, Slide 10, www.edelman.com/research .

[10] datareportal.com/reports/digital-2017-global-digital-overview

[11] https://www.rt.com/document/57152b17c46188e26c8b460c/amp, accessed 20 July 2017.

[12]http://www.digitalnewsreport.org/essays/2016/why-trust-matters/, accessed 24 July 2017.

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/jan/18/bbc-trust-says-laura-kuenssberg-report-on-jeremy-corbyn-was-inaccurate-labour, accessed 19 July 2017.


[15] Friedman, ‘Why Trump is Thriving in an Age of Distrust’.

[16] Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Defeating The New Shock Politics (London, 2017), p. 34.

[17] D’Ancona, Post Truth .

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