In a year marked by turbulence at home and abroad, trust in institutions in the United States crashed, posting the steepest, most dramatic general population decline the Trust Barometer has ever measured.
It is no exaggeration to state that the U.S. has reached a point of crisis that should provoke every leader, in government, business, or civil sector, into urgent action. Inertia is not an option, and neither is silence. The public’s confidence in the traditional structures of American leadership is now fully undermined and has been replaced with a strong sense of fear, uncertainty and disillusionment.
Among the informed public, the trust crash is even steeper, with trust declining 23 points, dropping the U.S. from sixth to last place out of the 28 countries surveyed. The informed public trust crash is universal across age, region and gender. As a result, the gap in trust between the informed public and the mass population has been all but eliminated.
In the search for explanation, context helps. For sure, it has been a year of exceptional public opinion volatility. Record rises in the stock market and the lowest unemployment rates in 10 years have been juxtaposed with stagnant wage growth, and public concerns over jobs, mass shootings, sexual harassment, and police treatment of black youth, not to mention the emerging fears on the global stage over North Korea, job migration and U.S. isolationism.
The result is an unsettled and unnerved public at large. Vast swaths of Americans no longer trust their leaders. Government had the steepest decline (14 points) among the general population. Fewer than one in three believe that government officials are credible. But no one is off the hook: trust in other institutions (business, NGOs and the media) fell heavily as well.
In losing the battle for trust, the biggest victim has been confidence in truth. Persistent references to fake news, linked to headlines around foreign government election manipulation have, unsurprisingly, had a cumulative, deep effect on the public. The inability to stem the perceived surge in disinformation has proven toxic: 63 percent of the U.S. general population finds it difficult to distinguish between what is real news and what is fake.
In this year’s survey there have been only losers, including business: the turmoil has had a clear, negative effect on Brand USA. Trust in companies headquartered in the U.S. has dropped five points from 55 to 50 percent just in the last year, after having already fallen from 61 percent in 2014. This is much below trust accorded companies based in Canada and Switzerland at 68 and 67 percent, respectively.
The uncertainty of the moment is palpable. The public is fearful, and trust is disturbingly low.
In this context, leadership is desperately sought and opportunities to step up are clear, starting with a new commitment to advancing a shared understanding of the truth, and a determination to stand tall in addressing the fears of Americans. Silence and inaction are not options, and no work is more important than re-establishing trust.
Business and CEOs have a critical role to play. The issues around which an individual business should engage will differ depending on the company and industry sector, but each has urgent issues that must be addressed. Social media platforms must act on “fake” news feeds and advertisers on information privacy; the financial service sector needs to shine a clearer light on the rise of crypto-currencies; manufacturers must allay fears about the export of jobs; and a growing cross-section of industries must address the malaise around job automation, from truck drivers to retail workers.
Speaking up requires courage and conviction. There will be no shortcut to rebuilding trust in America, and no one institution will succeed on its own. Government, business, NGOs and the media will need to work together to find a new foothold with the public, one that is firmly grounded in a commitment to truth.
Lisa Ross is president, Washington, D.C.
Stephen Kehoe is global chair, Reputation.