The West's Biggest Problem Is Dwindling Trust

A decline in social capital drives surprising electoral outcomes.

Trust, what trust?

Photographer: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Many Americans gasp when they see Donald Trump mockingly put the word "intelligence" in quotes when referring to the U.S. intelligence community; it seems heretical to challenge the wisdom and expertise of institutions charged with safeguarding their security and freedoms. As a Russian, I just shrug: I have never believed a word coming from my country's intelligence services. This cultural gap is shrinking, though. Western societies are turning into low-trust ones, after the post-Communist, Eastern European model. 

Two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama, the man who also blithely declared that history was ending and a liberal democratic paradise was at hand, connected trust with prosperity. He argued that societies with more trust among their members, such as the U.S., Japan and Germany, did better than those with a smaller radius of trust that rarely goes far beyond the family, such as China, Italy, France or Korea. Economic evidence hasn't quite borne that out, but at least it can be said that a more trustful society is more comfortable to live in, primarily because you don't have to jump through hoops to prove the purity of your intentions.

Communism destroyed trust in every country it touched. An all-controlling, mistrustful state set the tone for social interaction and practically invited people to fight it or cheat it. Trust nested in families and small communities of people who knew each other well, but even inside these units there was sometimes a snitch. This annihilation of trust has outlasted communism. Many researchers who have studied the phenomenon have concluded that this has to do with economic development: If institutions and interpersonal relationships fail to deliver well-being, they don't merit much trust. But if people and institutions are not trusted, there's no incentive for them to deliver. "There may be a complex, probably circular, self-reinforcing causal mechanism between the level of economic development and the general level of interpersonal and institutional trust," Zsolt Boda and Gergo Medve-Balint wrote in 2014 in a paper exploring why all types of trust were lower in central and Eastern Europe than in the continent's west.

Parts of the former Soviet sphere are caught in this vicious circle. Ukraine, where only volunteer organizations, the military and the church are trusted by more than half the population, has had major difficulties reforming because the government is seen as essentially self-seeking. Low-trust environments are ill-suited for boisterous democracy: It quickly descends into infighting and paralysis. This is not just a post-Communist phenomenon: Italians and Greeks, whose trust in their governments is as low or lower than in Eastern Europe, know it well. 

As a result, low-trust countries often readily submit to strong-handed rule. An authoritarian like Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't care much about building trust: He can rule by other methods, such as stoking resentments against perceived external enemies. Hungary's Viktor Orban and Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski have also moved along this path. Monopolies on power and stronger governments, however, lead to overregulation and corruption, slow down economies and perpetuate mistrust, both in the governments and among people.

The former Communist countries' path of trust erosion is easier to explain than that followed by the U.S. In 2014, Jean Twenge and her two collaborators published a paper showing that trust in both institutions and individuals was at a historic low in the U.S. In 1972-1974, 46 percent of adult Americans agreed that "most people can be trusted"; in 2010-2012, that share was down to 33 percent. As for trust in institutions, data that has become available since the Twenge paper shows that it hasn't improved by much since post-financial crisis lows. As in Ukraine, Americans have a lot of trust in the military; the only two other institutions enjoying majority trust are small business and the police. Trust in the media, schools, the health care and justice systems, not to mention the presidency and Congress, is dismally low. There's less trust in some key institutions than in Russia, one of the world's most distrustful societies.

Distrustful Societies

In Russia and the U.S., fewer than 50 percent of people trust most major institutions

Sources: Gallup, June 2016; Levada Center, October 2016

* Data for the U.S. include those who trust an institution "a great deal" and "quite a lot". Data for Russia include those who consider an institution "quite worthy of trust"

Twenge and her collaborators said the trend was consistent with the lower concern for others and lower levels of civic engagement found among millennials; but for the most part, they linked the dip in trust to economic factors. "Rising income inequality predicts lower trust over time, and poverty rates predict lower confidence in institutions," they wrote. 

According to the marketing firm Edelman, which has been measuring trust since the turn of the century, trust in institutions in the U.S. isn't quite as low as in Eastern Europe yet, but the gap isn't particularly wide. Among the general population, average trust in non-governmental organizations, government, media and business reaches 49 percent in the U.S., 39 percent in Russia and 35 percent in Poland. It's the college-educated Americans who have far more confidence in their country's institutions than their Eastern European peers. This explains educated Americans' irritation with Trump's lack of confidence in intelligence -- and my lack of such irritation.

Edelman calls this the "trust gap" between the "informed public" and the "mass population." This gap has been widening in much of the world, and France, the U.K. and the U.S. are three countries where it has been growing the fastest. That should help explain the surprising political upheavals in these countries.

One can see the trust gap as a consequence of growing economic inequality, but I think the high correlations between economic well-being and trust levels have led researchers to oversimplify the problem and to suggest that the forces of mistrust can be thrown into reverse by lowering inequality. People are not Pavlov's dogs, and they don't just respond to economic stimuli. They also trust an institution because over time, it takes care to build a reputation for reliability. That's easy for a successful military to do -- but hard for a media establishment that follows the government line too closely or takes too much care to be politically correct or an intelligence community that reacts too obviously to political signals and makes grave mistakes, as U.S. intelligence did before the Iraq war. It's a matter of working consciously to build trust.

While in Eastern Europe, mistrust is universal and outcomes are relatively predictable, in the West the relative trustfulness of the elite has created the potential for jarring surprises. Trump and Brexiters won because they didn't roll their eyes at a distrustful mass audience -- they learned to think like that audience and see institutions through its eyes.

Three different outcomes are possible. One is a version of Putin, Orban or Kaczynski: Ignore the mistrust, use the institutions to push an agenda and keep people in check. Trump may harbor such plans, though American institutional checks and balances are designed to resist usurpers. Another is relative chaos, something the U.K. Brexiters seem to have created in a country whose institutions seemed too strong to allow it. Ukraine occupies a more extreme point on that continuum. No country has successfully walked the third, most difficult path yet, and the one that is an imperative for the West -- that of rebuilding universal trustworthiness in its major institutions. As Fukuyama pointed out, it's far easier to destroy trust than to rebuild it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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