Stable relationships are built on three pillars: communication, respect and trust. This applies for all relationships – romantic, interpersonal, institutional and community-level (save perhaps for interspecies). An individual in a nation state exists in a number of relationships they may not necessarily be aware of: a kinship between members of the same community, a bond between voters or a patriotism felt by all those holding similar passports. Each of these pillars plays in a role in each of these relationships – transparency between governments and their people are key in maintaining lines of open communication, respect is demonstrated through the way in which an administration treats it’s people once in a position of power, and trust – well, trust is the foundation on which institutions themselves are built.
Trust is notoriously difficult to pin down and often subject to partisan bias – a radical conservative feels little trust that a reformist technocrat running for executive office will improve their life for the better if elected, an opinion subject to generalization and internal bias gathered through years of witnessing civil servants failing to act in ways they agree with. It is also prone to fluctuation, given that trust is measured through questions about the way voters feel, and emotions are typically experienced in moments. One can trust the President of the United States one day, read a story about government corruption that night, and vocally demand his impeachment the next.
Still, a few constants are held true: Trust in government in the United States peaked in the 1950s and 1960s and is currently at the lowest it has ever been recorded. Trust has been consistently dropping through three administrations, displaying a lack of faith that exceeds partisan boundaries. And surveys of social capital show that fewer people than ever before trust the other members of their communities and societies, a negative indicator that shows it is not simply trust in institutions that has eroded in the Western world. A certain degree of suspicion in government has always been necessary to keep wily or self-serving politicians in check, but extremely low-levels can have damaging outcomes.
Trust exists in two primary forms: Political trust, when policy-making is appraised as responsive and fair to the needs of the people, and Social trust, the confidence in each other as members of a social community. They are deeply intertwined, with levels of social capital often directly correlating with how much an active citizen counts on their leaders to improve their lives. High levels of trust are correlated with lower rates of crime, greater concern placed in the political integrity in the elected, and higher economic growth. A lack of trust can lead to decreased engagement from people in their communities, and push states into a ‘distrust trap’, a term used to describe a nation experiencing a positively reinforcing cycle of increasing regulation and slower economic growth. This is because of the tendency for the corrupt to issue preferential treatment to certain groups, thereby disadvantaging the whole in favour of enriching the few.
But government transparency is also not proven to increase trust levels between the governing and the governed. A 2012 study at the University of Utrecht found that transparency is a ‘hygiene factor’, meaning that it does not increase the level of trust in government overall, and can actually lead to decreases if citizens are unhappy with the level of transparency demonstrated. The study explains how issues of perceived legitimacy arise in complex decision-making for matters of high importance for citizens, such as the selection of unbiased experts to review drafts of health care policy. Further study indicates that transparency fails even to lead to increased levels of accountability for corruption in government, creating instead a sense of resignation about the state of affairs instead of indignation amongst the electorate. This lack of engagement can be explained through the reduction in utility an individual feels their voice has in a participatory system, believing instead that their one voice is likely to have no impact at all.
This is supported through an analysis into levels of social capital – when citizens engage in civic activities within their communities, levels of social trust increase alongside the development of social norms and standards. Levels of isolation decrease in conjunction with trust levels rising when your neighbours go from figures to human beings. A lack of interaction on a local level erodes the sense of belonging in a community, subsequently damaging the trust held in the institutions with which civic participation intersects. Strong levels of distrust can increase the likelihood of questioning legitimacy, damaging incumbency both in politicians and government systems, thereby leading to the rise of radicalism in political life. Individuals who distrust the news are more likely to buy into Ponzi schemes or engage in corruption, groups are more likely to distrust media figures and demand the upending of democratic institutions or norms for partisan gain, and division fostered along ethnic or cultural lines is ever easier to foster in a community that witnesses people view themselves as thoroughly separated from the fate of their neighbours.
Gossip columnists and caring friends will tell you the only way to rebuild trust in personal relationships is forgive. But to forgive is to learn – and in this, the same logic can apply on a grander scale. Greater participation in civic institutions increases levels of discussion and debate, ensuring that individuals who disagree have a chance to meet and speak about the things that matter to them most. To forgive is to grow – governments must understand that changing technologies and increasing multi-polarity amongst voters requires recalibration and reform. Greater democratization in process is needed. The voices of citizens must be engaged when designing policy, especially on a local level. A greater focus must be placed upon respecting the limits of institutions and aligning with accepted ethical norms (which can evolve over time if demanded by the informed electorate). And to forgive is to care – citizens must act to hold politicians accountable to promises through civic participation, through voting or protest, and demand that those who fail to act in the best interests of the people are removed from power, giving themselves the authority they feel has been taken from them. Only then can we rebuild and ensure that we continue to verify those who seek our trust.