A recently released public opinion poll on electoral and other matters prepared by Leger Marketing for Elections Canada has good and bad news for the country. The good news is that most Canadians trust the electoral agency and believe the country has fair elections. This data, collected in the spring, comes as Americans grow increasingly wary of their contests, as expressed in the longevity of “stop the steal” Republican politicking. But reading beyond the data on elections, the numbers are less encouraging.
Trust is essential to democracy. It’s currency. It’s glue. It’s the stuff that makes living together and sorting out our differences possible. It’s what keeps people showing up. In Canada, trust is low in key areas of social and political life. And it’s hard to blame people for this widespread mistrust. Leger found that a full 66 percent of respondents “agree that they do not think the government cares about what people like them think.” The findings are consistent with a belief that politics is too complicated to understand (52 percent agreed) and that all parties are the same (43 percent agreed).
For a country run by a political class backed by technocrats and communications professionals, none of this should be surprising. Canada is a liberal democracy, emphasizing the representative nature of that system, which tends to keep people at distance from self-government. It’s no surprise that over time, people pick up on the message that their government asks and expects very little from them beyond participation in the labor market, paying taxes, and perhaps voting once every few years in one election or another.
In the summer of 2022, Abacus Data found that 44 percent of respondents agreed that “much of the information we receive from news organizations is false.” A higher number, 52 percent, believed “official government accounts of events can’t be trusted.” Those who were less educated were less trusting, which is a common phenomenon. Those marginalized the most from a country’s institutions are most likely to distrust them, after all.
Beyond political and media institutions, social cohesion is also thin in Canada — and trending downward. In March, Ipsos found that “only 30% of adults say most people can be trusted against 70% who believe that you can’t be too careful dealing with people.” Once again, the data is conditioned by education and income level — those with more education and income trust one another more.
Polite Canadian society encourages the wringing of one’s hands about low trust. It makes for good columns and think pieces, fascinating TV and radio, and endless polls and reports. Evidently, all of this fretting is for nothing, because the arc of trust is bending toward its antithesis despite the consternation of elites. It’s not surprising. The market economy and class are rarely discussed when trust is the topic of conversation, even if everyone will skirt around the issue that plainly sits right in the middle of the room. Come on, people. It’s a class issue. It’s an economic issue. And the origin of low trust, and thus its deleterious manifestations, is a political failure by those who run government and shape the economy. The origin of low trust is decades of capitalist depredation and the thinning out of the state in such a way that working people have been left to fend for themselves in a Hobbesian state of struggle.
More than once I’ve been in a room jibber-jabbering away about democracy with a lot of educated, thoughtful people who nod gravely about the serious problems faced not only by our democracy, but also by democracies around the world. There is so very much to worry about. The meetings tend to be public panels on “threats to democracy,” conferences, or the occasional closed-door get-togethers of those who work in the democracy industry: NGO staff, academics, a sprinkling of activists. Each time, I raise the same issue. Does anyone here wish to talk about class? About economics? About structural change? Or shall we just go on and on some more about the next app or meeting or “democratic innovation”? After all, travel is covered and the food is free. We might as well roll up our sleeves. Few have been keen to take me up on the issue.
The most well-meaning democracy-savers, concerned about trust and the state of self-government, routinely miss the fact that no one is apathetic, but millions of people are alienated. As I often say, I’ve never met an apathetic person in my life. In conversation, of course, it’s easy to conjure an apathetic median voter. But if this person was flesh and blood, we could ask: Do you care about taxes? About your job? About a pension? Roads? Schools? Health care? This hypothetical paragon of indifference would care a great deal about these things and more. And it is exactly the flesh-and-blood voters concealed by such theoretical examples that are routinely jettisoned from the political system and, for that matter, the media. What’s left but to become alienated and distrustful?
Sorting out our trust issues and, at the same time, the health and future of our democratic issues starts with addressing the alienation that stems from a liberal democracy and free market that treat people instrumentally — as means to an end. Trotting out prefab political promises to attain office for an election cycle and/or building a better mousetrap for the glory and capital accumulation of the C-suite big shots is transactional, shallow, and alienating. Sorting out our issues requires us to work to remake a system in such a way that everyone in it can be confident they can meet their day-to-day needs, taking meaningful part in the political system, and have a fair shot at shaping the world around them in concert with their peers. But few who worry about trust and democracy are interested in that work. It would deprive them of their control — or worse, their capital.
What happens when we stop trusting media, government, and one another? We may well buy into conspiracy theories, drive to the capital and occupy it, retreat from society, give in to hate and extremism. But that’s a little too glib, isn’t it? Trust doesn’t just “stop” — the problem starts with political, and thus economic, failure. When decades of austerity, failed Third Way politics, and thin liberal nonsolutions to thick problems catch up with us — when people realize they’re getting a bad deal — trust plummets. Low trust manifests in different forms among different people, from tuning out, to expressions of anger or violence, to adopting authoritarian reactionary politics, and everything in between.
Accordingly, in the long run, low trust risks tearing a society apart. In the short run, it results in needless suffering and discomfort for both the low-trusting folks and those who bear the brunt of their expressions of distrust. Ultimately, it’s in our collective interest to deal with this problem at the root. If we wait too long, we risk far worse outcomes than we currently face, particularly as we stare down a climate warming toward three degrees Celsius, and all that will bring.
So, let’s talk about trust — and class. And economics. Low trust may spread like a virus, but it’s neither random nor evenly distributed. When we talk about low trust, we are talking about the trust of working people in the political architecture of elites. And why would any of us trust a system which is built to reward the few while dispossessing the many? Low trust is an alarm calling for us to radically remake our institutions — because anything less is a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.