How have societies rebuilt trust in their leaders? Your ideas please!

July 18, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

What can we learn from history about how to rebuild the trust between political leaders and citizens that seems to have evaporated in recent years?

This was the topic of a recent exchange with Paddy Radcliffe. Paddy has launched a project to ‘build trustworthiness and trust in and between our public leaders, institutions and citizens’ in the UK. The campaign involves developing a set of principles that leaders can sign up to, backed up by public scrutiny over whether they then follow them. Seems rather quixotic/over-optimistic given the current state of politics, so my first question was ‘where has this happened before?’

I ask this question a lot. Activists often think about influencing, reform and change in a bit of a historical vacuum, whereas looking for antecedents can be useful – either you find them, and can learn something from them, or you are forced to ask yourself some tough questions about why your proposed great idea has never previously occurred in the whole of human history.

So as usual, I took to twitter in search of answers, and got some really interesting replies. Among the more relevant:

Alan Hirsch: ‘Trust was lost in late 19th century USA due to corruption and abuse of power in the public and private sectors and populism blossomed, but first progressivism and then the New Deal rebuilt trust.’

Diana Cammack: ‘Not regaining trust exactly, but I find it interesting that Boomers who hated the Establishment and distrusted intel-community (Vietnam, 1960s etc) now assuming they (FBI, CIA, spies generally) are good guys in their contest vs. Trump admin. Misplaced belief?! (& hopes!)’

Annie Feighery: ‘I would point to social cohesion as a primary factor from which trust in public institutions is a symptom. Poverty is the most common setting for both. Building mechanisms of/for elasticity and fostering interpersonal cooperation consistently help both. Classic social cap theory.’

Jose Manuel Roche: ‘Plenty of good examples in Latin America of countries that were able to overcome political polarization – often the result of sweat and tears. How Democracies Die is full of historical examples.’

Samy Ahmar: ‘A useful reference is “Why Nations Fail” in which the distinction between extractive & inclusive institutions is a helpful key to explore how trust between citizens and their rulers is built and destroyed. It doesn’t cover political apathy and distrust in rich countries though.’

What do I take from these? That rebuilding trust is a long hard slog – like reputations, trust takes decades to build, and hours to lose.

There must be more to it than that though. For example, the arrival of new political actors – movements, parties, charismatic leaders etc – often leads to an upsurge in trust as the public believes that ‘this time, they will be different’. Case in point is Evo Morales in Bolivia. In some circumstances that new trust endures at least for a good few years; in others it vanishes like the morning dew. But there always seems to be some cycle of illusion and disillusion with political leaders, perhaps more so than with others (eg faith leaders). Anyone got any thoughts or research to recommend on that?

And what about the role of intermediaries as trust brokers – non-politicians who have public trust and can say ‘this leader or issue really matters – get involved’? There are loads of these – youtube vloggers, cultural icons, religious leaders or secular saints like David Attenborough (here’s his recent public coronation at Glastonbury – what wouldn’t politicians to have that kind of appeal?). In what circumstances do their interventions and appeals make a significant impact?

Idle musings in the jetlagged hours – feel free to chip in.

July 18, 2019
Duncan Green