If a leader leads and nobody follows, the consequences for all of us are profound

Trust in the US government is eroding. Gavin Esler considers the causes

Donald Trump threatened 10 per cent tariffs on China on Thursday. AP
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If you were to ask yourself to name the world’s most valuable commodity, you might settle on oil, gold, diamonds or, perhaps, water. The value of such commodities to an economy or a nation is possible to measure, or at least estimate, especially as natural resources they are limited. Others might consider that the world’s most valuable commodities are incapable of measurement — love, friendship, knowledge — and even more valuable than gold. But over the past 20 or so years researchers and pollsters have tried to measure what may prove to be a most valuable and increasingly scarce commodity in the 21st century: trust. We trust our families and our friends (mostly) but around the world surveys suggest we trust governments, big business, the media and other institutions much less than we used to do.

For several decades the US-based Edelman Trust Barometer has studied more than 20 countries ranging from the US and China to Europe and the Middle East. In the recently published 2018 survey there is some good news. In the UAE trust in institutions, especially in government, is very high. The Emirates rank in the top four trusting nations, perhaps because in a troubled world the UAE has proved to be forward thinking, stable and prosperous. The most trusting country of all in the survey is China. Presumably similar factors — progress, stability, prosperity — are also obvious here. Xi Jinping appears to retain the confidence of hundreds of millions of his people and speaks of "the Chinese Dream" of a better life.

But in many other countries the news is bad. In the United States it is terrible. Trust in the US has, in Edelman's word, collapsed. Distrust is driven by "a staggering lack of faith in government which fell 14 points to 33 per cent among the general population." Put simply, two out of three Americans do not trust the government in the world's most powerful democracy. Edelman divides populations into the "mass population" and the "informed public". The informed public are, in this definition, better educated, read more newspapers and tend to be richer. In the US this "informed public" has seen trust in the government drop a staggering 30 points in one year. Edelman's CEO, Richard Edelman, calls the US picture "an unprecedented crisis of trust" and says this is the first time such a drop has occurred without some economic issue or catastrophe like the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The consequences of a collapse in trust are profound. Imagine a leader feels it necessary to go to war, or to take decisive and yet unpopular action. In the United States it appears likely that the vast majority of people would simply not trust the president's judgement.


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But there are pockets of good news here too. Around the world when people are asked the blunt question, "Do you trust the media?", the answer for many is "no". But it appears that the distrusted media means in most cases media platforms including Facebook, other social media and search engines. When asked more specifically if journalists are trusted, the surveys show that in many cases journalists are more trusted now than before. Moreover "experts" — especially technical experts and academic experts — show very high and rising levels of trust. Trust in big business leaders, CEOs, is also rising. As the Edelman survey puts it "nearly two thirds of respondents say they want CEOs to take the lead on policy change instead of waiting for government" and that people put "building trust" at the top of the list of expectations for the role of big business.

We can draw a number of lessons from these surveys. One is that countries which have seen planned economic development which filters through to most people — China, India, the UAE — see rising levels of trust in government. Business leaders are admired perhaps because they contribute to prosperity and the successful ones get things done. The second lesson, especially from the USA in 2018, is that a disruptive leader who makes statements which are simply untrue destroys trust not just in himself but in democratic government, especially among those who follow the news closely. As the report put it, "nearly seven in 10 respondents worry about fake news and false information being used as a weapon."

In our highly competitive media age, any politician, any leader, who routinely lies or tries to deceive, will undoubtedly be exposed. But the risk is not merely to that politician’s own credibility and authority. The risk is to the legitimacy of government itself. Leaders, like every one of us, make mistakes. If a leader is generally trusted, those mistakes may be forgiven. But once trust is destroyed — as we all know from our own friendships and personal relationships — it is difficult to rebuild. There is an old joke about how you can tell if a politician is lying — his lips are moving. It ceases to be a joke when loss of trust undermines the system of government so profoundly that when a leader leads, nobody follows.