What has happened to trust in authority? And how will it change in coming generations((Zoomers, born late 90s to early 2010s, and Alphas following them))?
This was what a client wanted to know on a recent consulting call. I thought it might be worth expanding on this issue here.
Trust in media
On the call with my client, I made an argument about distance. That we struggle to trust things that are distant from us, whether that is in terms of geography, class and wealth, or experience. In the last few years, we have arguably seen the distance between us in these dimensions rising. Just a few days later, I read the transcript of a debate between the journalists Matt Taibbi and Ben Bradlee Jr about the death of mainstream media. In his closing remarks, Taibbi talked about the death of local news across the US. He pointed out that the the journalists lost with local closures were much closer to their readers than the writers on the nationals. These exulted spaces are largely populated by a homogenous bunch: white, upper-class (in US terms), Ivy Leaguers.
If these people share few of your experiences and values – religion, politics, culture, education – it’s hard to connect with them. It is even harder to trust them. What do they know? They’re likely based hundreds of miles from you. Maybe thousands. So you’ll never encounter them. And they will never encounter you.
Trust in politicians
It was hard not to think about our own House of Commons when listening to Taibbi’s description. Swap Oxbridge for Ivy League and you’re pretty much there.
The distance between government and the rest of the population can be measured in many dimensions. The first is geographic. Though we’ve seen moves towards devolution over the last twenty years, these have been offset by the gutting of public services at local level. The result, I would argue, is that power and spending have actually been further concentrated in London. Certainly, I think it feels that way to many.
Europe may have been the target of many people’s ire in the Brexit vote. But I think that was a proxy for Westminster in many cases. Easier and more appealing to believe your power has been taken away by some nebulous foreign entity than that it has been simply shifted to your own capital.
And people’s individual power has been taken away. Or rather the power and wealth imbalance has increased. Look at any measure of inequality in the UK and right now we are at or near 40-year highs, with the exception of the peak in the 2008/9 recession.
This combination of disenfranchisement and disempowerment is one of the core theses explaining the rise of UKIP and Brexit, and Trumpism in the US, where similar phenomena are visible.
Trust in experts
If this distance in geography, power and wealth explains a lack of trust in media and politicians, what explains our lack of trust in experts? Particularly scientists. Through the pandemic I have been dismayed by the scale of conspiracy belief, anti-mask and anti-vaccination protests. I wonder if this doesn’t also come down to some form of distance.
This is just a theory, so take with the appropriate care. But it feels to me as if the gap between common understanding and expert knowledge has increased significantly over the last few decades. Take physics, for example. Most of the physics that powered our world until the digital revolution was Newtonian. It all operated within the bounds of things we could see and feel. If you could understand an explosion, you could grasp the basics of a combustion engine, or even a rocket ship. Now most of the physics that makes the headlines is quantum. And as Feynman said in 1965, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”((Note: this may not have been true even at the time. Lots of people understand quantum physics up to the level of our current understanding today. But it remains incredibly difficult for the layperson to grasp – and I say this from experience))
Even though more of us than ever go to university – over half of the population – the gap between basic knowledge and expertise feels like it has widened. And perhaps this rise has only reinforced for some their sense of exclusion from knowledge? How must it feel to be in the minority, not going on to higher education?
Trust in each other
This education inequality is just one of many gaps opening up in the population. Culture has changed fast in the last few decades, accelerated by the low friction production and distribution of new media, services and products. Not only is there perhaps now a widening gap between the expectations of parents and their children, there is also the potential for an increasingly large gap between social tribes of any age((Note I’m not saying that either of these gaps are at all time highs. The experience gap between those who fought in the Second World War and their hippy children would have been pretty extreme, for example. But it doesn’t matter: wide and widening gaps drive conflict.)). Don’t agree? OK Boomer.
Nonetheless, there are still things that connect us. Any despair in the state of relations can usually be undercut by a glimpse at the Public Health England data from last summer, showing how many of us cared for our neighbours in lockdown.
The future of trust
So, where do we go from here? I confess, I am not optimistic right now. I see no political, social, or educational changes on the horizon that might increase our levels of trust in authority, or in each other. Though at the same time, there are some trends that suggest we shouldn’t be too worried.
Despite all the stories of corruption, the current government did very well in local elections this week. You may or may not like them, or agree with them, but trust in politicians clearly hasn’t been that damaged by recent events. At least not in relative terms.
Likewise, for all the vocal distrust in politicians and scientists over the vaccine, uptake so far is over 95%. Only some of those 5% will have failed to be vaccinated for ideological reasons. Distrust only stretches so far.