David Moscrop is the author of Too Dumb for Democracy?: Why We Make Bad Political Decisions And How We Can Make Better Ones.
One year ago this week, Canadians watched in horror as the World Health Organization announced that a new coronavirus had triggered a global pandemic. Our lives were abruptly upturned as hospitalizations, deaths, job losses and upheaval surged around the world. We prepared for a difficult time of indeterminate length.
And yet, the early days of the pandemic also seemed to produce a surge in support for the foundational pillars of our society, which are only as strong as they are trusted: our institutions, including government, businesses, NGOs and media.
Canada’s leaders worked to assure citizens that they were in control, and that while things would be tough, we would ultimately prevail – a “we” that was meant to be inclusive. Politicians enjoyed spikes in personal popularity as they navigated the crisis in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a “Team Canada effort.” Public-health officials became household names overnight.
Extraordinary restrictions on the lives on Canadians, justified in the name of the common good, were largely accepted by wide swaths of the population. Things were going well enough that some wondered whether the pandemic might prompt widespread buy-in for expanding the role of government in our day-to-day lives. And according to the communications marketing agency Edelman, which releases a trust survey every year to measure global attitudes toward various institutions, trust in government among Canadians surged by 20 percentage points during those heady first two months of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, nightly news broadcasts and mainstream media publications saw ratings and readerships rise as they tried to parse virus fact from fiction. Informed by a mutual aid and solidarity movement long known and practised in Black, Indigenous and disabled communities, the “caremonger” movement found citizens stepping up to support those needing help. For further hope, we looked to the postwar rules-based international order as countries worked together on vaccine research and PPE distribution.
And so it seemed that, at least in the pandemic’s first months, Canadians were genuinely rallying together out of a fundamental faith in the primacy of our society, and the institutions and people that undergird it.
One year on, we can safely say the spirit of those early months was largely an illusion.
Countries around the world, many of which experienced similar surges in trust, have since suffered serious corrections. Canada – which now faces a “crisis of leadership and expert credibility” in which “government leaders, CEOs and religious leaders are not trusted to do what is right,” according to Edelman – was no exception. Canadians’ trust in government crashed by 11 points between May, 2020, and January of this year, one of the higher plunges of any country Edelman surveyed. Trust in business, NGOs, the media, academics and information sources also fell year-over-year, broadly in keeping with the global average decline. Around half of Canadians surveyed now say that government leaders, business leaders and journalists are actively trying to mislead them. A similar survey from public-relations firm Proof Strategies found that Canada’s trust levels are “stable but weak,” with a more pronounced decline among lower-income Canadians and less trust among younger people.
Botched or unevenly administered lockdown strategies, doubts and despair about vaccine procurement, and confusion about vaccination programs have certainly damaged Canadians’ faith in voices of authority. Dangerous conspiracy theories have filled in the gaps left by unclear communications amid public-health recommendations that sometimes shifted without adequate explanation. We’ve watched with growing cynicism as politicians hedged and dissembled and hemmed and hawed, making partisan plays while telling us that this crisis wasn’t “the time for politics.” The global-village spirit, or at least the initial mirage of one, has given way to vaccine nationalism and PPE hoarding. In short, a full year of pandemic life has firmly given lie to the notion that we are “all in this together,” both domestically and globally.
Now, those charged with steering Canada’s institutions are looking ahead to the postpandemic world, and few are missing the opportunity to promise to “build back better.” As a bromide, it must be hard to resist – it’s nebulous and inspirational-adjacent, lacking in both clarity and deadline. But after a year in which Canadians dared to place renewed hope in institutions and were let down far too often, more broken promises only risk furthering the erosion of all-important social trust in our institutions and in each other – potentially permanently undermining the very thing that makes collective life in a functioning society possible.
Social trust is at once an indicator and a facilitator. It tells us something about the health of a given polity, and it provides capital we can trade on to get things done within our institutions. When trust in authority, community and institutions drop precipitously, our collective life can be imperilled. Facts may become meaningless, expertise and wisdom ignored, legitimacy revoked, and the benefits of working collectively dismissed, with the most vulnerable often asked to bear the burdens of the fallout the most.
Institutions, to be sure, routinely come up short. They sometimes fail, and they are often co-opted to serve the few rather than the many. But high trust in them enables and reflects social cohesion, just as low trust compromises it. High trust incentivizes and facilitates representative and inclusive public policy; low trust pits groups against one another for artificially scarce resources. High trust encourages us to prepare for and tackle huge crises that demand collective action.
A significant decline in trust can send a society down a slippery slope, as less can be done to repair the damage the longer the erosion continues – a death spiral that spins toward a zero-sum, self-interested world devoid of sufficient (or at least observed) norms and rules. At the extreme end of this range we find what Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century philosopher and social-contract theorist, warned about in Leviathan: a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Indeed, as British historian Geoffrey Hosking warned in 2019, events such as Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump and the success of populist parties were societal products of “a sharp decline in trust.” He traces the rise of neoliberal policies that caused inequality to deepen between the globalization of capital in the 1980s to the financial crash of 2008, despite the repeated assurances made from inside closed boardrooms and elitist legislatures. Younger generations began to worry that they would be worse off than their forebears were. The conceit that wealth would trickle down – a brazen myth from its very inception – was decisively debunked by raw data. And around the world, nefarious actors and extremists preyed on moments of weakness while various catastrophes deepened and then entrenched inequities, allowing toxic politics to thrive and adding converts to the anti-establishment cause.
A 2016 International Monetary Fund working paper written by Eric Gould and Alexander Hijzen found “overall inequality lowers an individual’s sense of trust in others in the United States as well as in other advanced economies. These effects mainly stem from residual inequality, which may be more closely associated with the notion of fairness, as well as inequality in the bottom of the distribution.” In short, when people are left out, they lose trust in the system that leaves them out.
These nasty effects, born from poor policy and politics, are what makes the current trust trendlines in Canada so worrying: They are a sign of growing hopelessness about deep and sustained inequality. Trust, after all, is more likely to be found among those for whom the system works than for those whom it fails. On balance, 43 per cent of respondents to Proof’s survey felt no difference in their sense of togetherness, while 26 per cent felt “less together and united.” That trust was mostly driven by older generations, who are generally more financially secure; 46 per cent of boomers said they felt “more together and united,” but only 29 per cent of Gen Z, 26 per cent of millennials and 29 per cent of Gen X respondents said the same.
The pandemic has brought into sharp focus what anyone paying attention already knew: Deep, persistent and stratified problems have produced a world that people experience very differently, depending on the advantages or disadvantages built into the structures of their life. Economist Armine Yalnizyan has warned, for instance, about the pandemic sparking a prolonged “she-cession” owing to its disproportionate impact on Canadian women and especially women in low-earning occupations, in no small part because of a lack of affordable child care. Those experiencing homelessness, those with disabilities, lower-income people and front-line workers also felt the pandemic in a different and more difficult way than most, despite the rhetoric of collective solidarity.
Declining trust doesn’t just reflect these growing inequalities; lost trust risks compounding them for years to come. Collectively using institutions to pursue tangible equality is not only morally just, it will be necessary in the long run if we hope to maintain or improve the health of our institutions and our democracy, especially in times of crisis. The various stumbles and errors made by those within our institutions are no reason to do away with institutions altogether. Instead, this warning sign should be an opportunity to remake them.
Doing so requires a four-part plan. First, above all, we must adopt policy and programming that supports social, political and economic egalitarianism. That includes child care, pharmacare, income and wealth equality measures, and the building of public and worker ownership. We must redistribute material resources to ensure that all who wish can participate in our institutions and find themselves reflected in the priorities of the day.
Second, we ought to adopt effective participatory democratic institutions, such as citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting programs, that can help produce representative policy and nurture trust in the process. Policy agendas should be set from the bottom-up, but that is only possible when those who make up the majority can take part.
Third, we need better state communications that are open, transparent, effective and stripped of partisan or strategic obfuscation. Opaque messaging invites speculation and conspiracy, makes the work of journalists more difficult, shuts confused citizens out of the participatory machinery of governance, and costs even more time and money to fix. A good place to start on this front would be an overhaul to our access-to-information systems.
And finally, there needs to be consequences for individual failures within institutions. Society needs the escape clause of accountability norms so that representatives, especially ministers and the first minister, own their failures and correct them – or, if they cannot (or if the failures are egregious), resign, rather than cling to their jobs.
When trust in institutions declines, the instinct for collective action falls away, too. Last year, I asked Yvonne Su, who studies disaster aftermaths, about whether the “caremongering” movement could endure. What Dr. Su told me then feels sadly prescient for our current situation: “Once a new normal sets in, or when the competition for scarce resources – such as job opportunities in a time of mass layoffs, government handouts or humanitarian assistance – becomes clear, then the social tensions and cleavages of the past resurface and sometimes harden.”
We cannot afford this. The reality is that we are stronger if we are working together on the same goals and bringing everyone along while we do. And even when the pandemic is over, existential threats will remain – climate change, in particular – and they will require a community approach.
There’s an old cliché that says the time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. Unfortunately, the fairer weather is long behind us. But that just means we’ll have to drag ourselves out in the rain to get the job done. Trust is necessary even in the good times, but it is utterly essential during the bad ones.
Fixing our circumstances will require a serious investment, but it’s one that we must make through the material inclusion of the whole of society, rather than mere symbolism. The costs of failing to reinforce the roof will be far higher than the costs of new shingles and fresh insulation. Because if nothing else, the last year has proved that there’s one thing we can trust: The worst case is always possible.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.