“In God We Trust,” that phrase enshrined on American currency, may be the only certainty in an era when trust is severely lacking in the government printing that money. And there is a widespread trust deficit in many liberal democracies on both sides of the Atlantic: less than a quarter of the American public trusts Washington, and less than half of European publics have confidence in their leaders. Is it any wonder why those who speak about anger, anxiety, and alienation have such appeal for those unhappy citizens?
In his recent work “Political Order and Political Decay,” Francis Fukuyama argues that of all intangible factors that may need to be present to make a political system work, trust is the most important: “citizens must trust the government to make good decisions reflecting their interests most of the time, while governments for their part must earn that trust by being responsive and delivering on their promises.” But that trust seems to be a rare commodity in liberal democracies these days.
Making comparisons is always difficult, but the backlash against David Cameron in advance of the UK’s June 23 referendum over EU membership reflects the same distrust aimed at President François Hollande in France. The recent resignation of the Austrian chancellor is another illustration of lost control amid a rightward shift fueled by anxiety over migration. Political volatility abounds in Europe on both the right and the left: the right wing in Poland is producing enormous backlash protests, Spanish leaders have been unable to form governing coalitions, the government is brittle in Portugal, and a minority government controls Ireland. Euro-skepticism is growing not only in the member states, but in the European Parliament itself.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, we are seeing growing frustration with the governing class and the status quo on both the right and the left. The rising popularity of Donald Trump highlights a deep animosity toward government embedded in American political culture that is now being exploited by both Trump and his sycophants in the Republican Party and the right-wing media. There is a similar blowback on the left, personified in the campaign of Bernie Sanders (who has, ironically, been in government for his entire professional life).
The decline in trust is not confined only to government institutions; other societal actors have likewise lost credibility as viable channels to represent interests or even identity, be it labor unions, established religious affiliations, or political parties. The dividing lines between left and right are more fluid, just as the parameters of the cultural, political, and economic issues defining societal coherence are fuzzier. There is a kaleidoscope of new populists, whose appeal is more to tribalist feelings and anxieties than any kind of coherent platform. Fukuyama describes this as the opposite of what should happen when trust is high and government is in equilibrium between expectations, effectiveness, and electability. When that is not the case, “low quality government breeds distrust on the part of the citizens, who then withhold from the state both the compliance and the resources necessary for government to function effectively.” The result is either government coercion or collapse—further undermining trust and allowing the rise of those demagogues who stoke fear, envy, and retribution.
Is there a way out of this trap? The give-and-take between citizens and government depends on trust, and whether the majority of people feel their interests are being represented and whether government leaders can respond. While there is a constant tension between the interests of majorities and minorities in democratic governments, there must be a basis of government accountability and trust in its legitimacy. What we currently see in Europe and the U.S. is a loss of faith in that legitimacy among voters who feel threatened or disadvantaged by the elected (and unelected) officials who are supposed to represent it. The attraction of an autocrat easily follows.
Fukuyama argues that the challenge for liberal democracies can be best met in providing what he sees as universal values: personal security, shared economic growth, quality basic public services like education, health, and infrastructure that are needed to achieve individual opportunity. He also warns that “democracies exist and survive only because people want and are willing to fight for them; leadership, organizational ability, and oftentimes sheer good luck are needed for them to prevail.”
We might believe that it is a nice idea to state “In God We Trust,” but as we are seeing in 2016, democracy works best when people want to claim it as their own.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS.