Trust is tanking. What might we do about it?

A recent newsletter from journalist and democracy-watcher David Moscrop advised the results of the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer – “trust” is tanking. And alongside it? Optimism.

And a contributing factor? The growing wealth divide.

Writes Moscrop:

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.

David Moscrop

Researchers found 89 percent of respondents around the world are concerned about job loss. 74 percent are worried about inflation. 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. 

We’re talking a runaway train of “personal economic fears” and “existential societal fears” keeping us up at night.

I feel a little better knowing I’m not the only person thrumming with an anxiety I can’t quite put my finger on. I mean, it’s good to know we’re not alone, right? And it’s not just here. It’s everywhere in the world!

And yet, there are people who feel more buoyant and insulated from those anxieties… (or at least, they are telling themselves they do.) And those are the wealthier.

While people increasingly distrust those in power – the government, business, and the media – the wealthy are a little more inclined to trust the party lines. This isn’t as overt in Canada, but Moscrop warns, it’s simmering beneath the surface and a growing polarization is poised to be exploited.

A chart called Economic Optimism Collapses taht shows a decline of 10 percent in the belief that "my family and I will be better off in five years." On the right, 24 countries are listed showing their belief in the statement, with most developed countries showing a balance of disbelief in the statement.

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. 

David Moscrop

This plays out here. In our backyards. Because it is an underlying sentiment that begins to unravel the social fabric. And social fabric is what wraps us together, through thick and thin, floods, crumbling mountainsides, fires, food shortages, all the precarities that flare up.

Around the world, summarises Moscrop, 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). 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).”

Moscrop predicts that, stacked on top of widespread and growing existential fears, “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.”

Moscrop argues that this tanking trust metric needs to be addressed with material solutions – redistributions in resources, 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.” “

It seems crazy to me that this would be seen as radical or undesirable.

I mean, as I try and teach my kid, if you’re guided by the Golden Rule, you won’t steer wrong. Treat others as you would want to be treated. It’s not always easy because sometimes you want more than your fair share, but it’s pretty clear it’s the best way to go, to orient back to again and again, over the long haul.

At a neighbour to neighbour level, we can at least try to practice this – to be trustworthy and be in relationship with each other. This kind of resilient social fabric is something we need to ride out the ups and downs that we’re experiencing and that are going to continue to come. Trust is tanking and optimism is waning, and I’m doubling down on you, friends, and here.

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