The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Edelman surveyed Americans about trust. The findings are disturbing, but not in the way you might think.

You won't believe what Edelman found in their trust survey.

Dozens of people rally Monday in disappointment over the reopening of the U.S. government without protections for immigrants, in Upper Senate Park in Washington. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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I argued in “The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas” that the erosion of trust in authority and expertise was one driver for the current state of the marketplace of ideas (the word “pessimists” in the subtitle likely gave that away). In an environment in which no one trusts experts or elites, ideas can emerge without much stress-testing — because no one trusts or believes the stress-testers.

One of the sources of data upon which I relied in researching the book was the Edelman Trust Barometer. Edelman conducts an annual global survey asking publics across the globe whether they trusted key institutions in their society. It oversamples members of the “informed public” — individuals aged 25 to 64, college educated, in the top 25 percent of household income in their country, who consume lots of news.

Their 2018 report was released earlier this week, and it is safe to say that Americans’ trust in institutions is no longer eroding. It has completely eroded.

Lisa Ross and Stephen Kehoe of Edelman paint a very disturbing picture:

In a year marked by turbulence at home and abroad, trust in institutions in the United States crashed, posting the steepest, most dramatic general population decline the Trust Barometer has ever measured.
It is no exaggeration to state that the U.S. has reached a point of crisis that should provoke every leader, in government, business, or civil sector, into urgent action. Inertia is not an option, and neither is silence. The public’s confidence in the traditional structures of American leadership is now fully undermined and has been replaced with a strong sense of fear, uncertainty and disillusionment.
Among the informed public, the trust crash is even steeper, with trust declining 23 points, dropping the U.S. from sixth to last place out of the 28 countries surveyed. The informed public trust crash is universal across age, region and gender. As a result, the gap in trust between the informed public and the mass population has been all but eliminated.

Edelman’s news release notes the unprecedented nature of these results:

The collapse of trust in the U.S. is driven by a staggering lack of faith in government, which fell 14 points to 33 percent among the general population, and 30 points to 33 percent among the informed public. The remaining institutions of business, media and NGOs also experienced declines of 10 to 20 points. These decreases have all but eliminated last year’s 21-point trust gap between the general population and informed public in the U.S.
The United States is enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “This is the first time that a massive drop in trust has not been linked to a pressing economic issue or catastrophe like the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In fact, it’s the ultimate irony that it’s happening at a time of prosperity, with the stock market and employment rates in the U.S. at record highs. The root cause of this fall is the lack of objective facts and rational discourse.”

This is not the kind of language one expects to hear coming from a public relations and marketing consultancy firm.

Edelman’s findings generated a fair amount of news coverage Monday. And the results are pretty disturbing. But in this case, I do wonder if the precipitous drop in trust in government is an artifact of how the question was asked: “Below is a list of institutions. For each one, please indicate how much you trust that institution to do what is right.” One of the institutions listed was simply “government.”

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts would like to suggest that in 2018, different partisans will interpret “government” to mean different things. For Trump supporters, the government is the permanent bureaucracy. If there is one thing Trump supporters have been conditioned to distrust over the past year, it is what they call the “Deep State.” Various right-wing claims about abuses at the FBI and Justice Department help to feed this distrust. And these claims come from the very top:

This helps to explain why conservatives did not indicate more trust in the government despite the GOP being in charge of all three branches. Ordinarily, partisans of the party in power would trust the government more.

For Trump opponents, the “government” is the Trump administration. Trump himself has proven to be a feckless manager of the bureaucracy. The repeated beclowning of the executive branch shows no sign of abating anytime soon. Mainstream media coverage of all this dysfunction fuels this distrust even further.

Sure enough, Edelman’s data reveals that the most dramatic drop in trust in government (a 20 point drop) came from those who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. Both Trump and Clinton supporters now distrust the government equally.

What’s driving the drop in the Edelman survey is not a further erosion of trust in government so much as increased political polarization leading to different definitions of “government.” That’s the good news. The bad news is that this polarization is an equally intractable problem for the marketplace of ideas.