Falling Trust Makes Us More Vulnerable to Strongmen

When we lose trust in one another, we’re more likely to demand or accept strong-handed leadership.

Three young men watch the sun set on Paris, France, February 24, 2009
Three young men watch the sun set on Paris, France, February 24, 2009 (Jean-Paul P.G.)

Trust is one of those amorphous but important factors that make our society what it is. It’s hard to measure, but social science tells us that societies in which people are more likely to implicitly trust each other are on the whole more peaceful and more prosperous than those where trust is low.

Canada and Sweden, for example, are two countries where trust is high. In Italy and Morocco, by contrast, trust is lower.

Trust is not the only thing that accounts for the differences between those four countries. But it goes some way to explaining why the first two are wealthier and more caring and the last two have more corruption and crime.

Trust is altogether higher in North America and Western Europe than in the rest of the world, which — again — goes some way to explaining why those regions do better on a variety of metrics.

Why trust falls

Trust is not constant. It fell in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism and rose in Western Europe during the 1990s.

Leonid Bershidsky, who grew up in a low-trust society himself, worries that trust is now declining in the West.

He mentions the possibility that economic hardship has diminished social trust and there may be something to that. The 2008 financial crisis undermined confidence in Western elites and institutions. Banks crashed the world economy, yet no one was punished or jailed. This reinforced the perception of a self-serving elite.

But trust in institutions has been falling for much longer. The financial crisis was less of a watershed moment than a breaking point.

Robert D. Putnam advanced his “bowling alone” thesis, about the demise of social capital and civic engagement in the United States, in 2000.

Francis Fukuyama has made similar arguments. In his most recent work, he connects this phenomenon to political polarization in the United States and the crisis in American government.

In Europe, immigration from non-Western societies has contributed to lower trust. Part of this is due to prejudice on the part of natives, but there are also newcomers who refuse, or are unable, to assimilate. Either way, social norms weaken. People are quicker to resort to rules and law enforcement, as opposed to reasoning with one another and finding a compromise.

Desire for strongmen

Bershidsky warns that such attitudes make a society susceptible to strong-handed rule.

Authoritarian leaders, like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and soon America’s Donald Trump, don’t bother with the long and arduous process of building trust, he writes. They rule by other methods, such as stoking resentment against perceived external enemies.

The desire for “strong” leadership in a low-trust society may appear to make sense. If citizens have little faith in each other, they can at least rely on a firm hand from the top.

The reality is that such a concentration of power in the hands of one man or a few invariably leads to overregulation and more, not less, corruption, slowing economic growth and perpetuating mistrust in both the government and among the people.

The better way is maintaining and rebuilding social trust. But that’s not something leaders can do on their own. That’s on all of us.