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Research Insight

The Fall of Trust, the Rise of Populist Action

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The 2017 Edelman TRUST BAROMETER documents a direct link between trust in institutions — or the lack of it — and the populist movements that have led to the overthrow of established governments and treaties in multiple countries over the last year.

The global Trust Index fell three points in the last year, the steepest decline we have ever documented. It is also the broadest decline: 21 of the 28 countries we survey lost trust in the four institutions of government, business, media and NGOs to do what is right. Government and media are both distrusted; business, at 52 percent trust, is barely above the line of distrust; NGOs at 53 percent have lost their long-held substantial lead as the most trusted institution.

Picture1Once our trust in the institutions that comprise the societal and economic system erodes to such low levels, it brings the whole system into question. Do people believe the system is fair? No. Do they believe that their hard work will be rewarded, and that their children will have a better future? No. Do they have confidence in their current leadership to solve problems and address these systemic problems? No.

Do they want change? Yes.

The majority of the global population today — 53 percent — does not believe the system is working for them. Only 15 percent believe the system is still working, and one-third are uncertain. In some countries, more than two-thirds of the population believe the system is broken. France, Italy (both 72 percent), Mexico, South Africa, Spain (all at 67 percent), Poland (64 percent), Brazil, Colombia, Germany (62 percent) are all at these elevated levels.

Once the people have lost faith in the system that is supposed to regulate a well-functioning society and protect us against a variety of economic and societal concerns, they become more vulnerable to fears. And in a kind of vicious cycle, these fears, in turn, can further erode their trust in the institutions that are failing to address them, which further undermines their faith in the system.

The 2017 Trust Barometer found a significant relationship between those who held fears — fear of corruption, globalization, immigration, the pace of change and innovation, and changing social values — and those who believe the system is broken. For example, among those who fear the effects of globalization, 79 percent also believe the system is broken, leaving them with a sense that not only are they being left out of the benefits of globalization, but also unprotected against its potential downsides.

If you look at the list of 10 countries where a majority of the population believe the system is failing them, and where an above-average percentage of the population hold multiple fears, the list reads like a “who’s who” of countries where the people have taken action against established systems. The list includes the U.K. (Brexit), the U.S. (the election of Trump), Italy (the rejection of reforms and a change in government), Brazil (an impeached president), and Colombia (the rejection of the government’s peace treaty). The loss of belief in the system provides the context in which a variety of fears can spur people to act.

Picture2

In Poland, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands (colored yellow in the chart), people have lost faith in the system but have not yet developed above-average levels of fears around multiple issues. These countries are on notice, since a population that feels unprotected also becomes more vulnerable to the fears that can ultimately lead to some kind of populist action.

Note that this phenomenon is specific to Western-style democracies, with the most intense levels in Western Europe, Latin America, and the U.S. In some less-democratic areas of the world, distrust is being expressed through the emergence of dissent and opposing voices.

Unless institutions and their leaders in these countries work to restore people’s trust as well as their belief that the system is serving their needs, populist movements will continue to flare and intensify.

Tonia Ries is the executive director of Edelman Square, Edelman’s intellectual property center.

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