Trust: It’s never been harder to gain or easier to lose than in 2018. Social media has transformed whom and what we believe, creating echo chambers that present opinion as fact; nationalist politicians have blamed establishment politics for every problem, real and phony, created by globalization and delivered it to voters in a box marked “us vs them.” Democracy — a form of governance that depends on trust in elections, the law, and the institutions of government — hasn’t been this vulnerable in decades.
The trend is most obvious in the country where an ambitious president called, 100 years ago this autumn, for a world made safe for democracy. It’s easy to blame the current president for the loss of trust, but Donald Trump is a symptom rather than a source of this illness.
Between December 2001 and December 2017, Americans’ trust in government plummeted from 49 percent to just 18 percent. The number of Americans who say they trust the president, the Supreme Court, and Congress a “great deal/quite a lot” has fallen by double-digits over the past two decades. The U.S. military is about the only American institution that is now more trusted, an achievement made all the more remarkable by failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the challenges that continue to plague the Veteran’s Administration. (That may be part of why Trump has brought so many military men into his circle of senior advisors.) But it’s partisan politics that so many Americans say they hate, and the military is less vulnerable here than elected officials or the judges they appoint.
But it not just the military’s distance from day-to-day political battles. The professionalization of the military corps remains one of the country’s greatest achievements. If you’ve never read David Lipsky’s excellent book Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point, you should. It shows how Americans can still instill solid values in the country’s young people — integrity, discipline, a willingness to sacrifice, and a commitment to something larger than self.
It’s a message that resonates with new force in a world where facts are routinely contested, and those who ask for votes so often seem to put party before country.
Of course, this enduring trust in the military creates other dangers — 17 percent of Americans today believe military rule would be a good way to govern the U.S. It’s not just Americans; a similar proportion of French and Italians agree with this sentiment. That’s a good measure of just how far public trust has fallen, on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s not news that politicians aren’t particularly trusted these days; the real concern is the falling levels of trust in the democratic institutions that are supposed to operate outside the realm of politics. Arguably the biggest court controversy in recent memory was the Supreme Court weigh-in on Bush v. Gore in 2000, as politicized a case as there ever was. But confidence in the Supreme Court remained virtually unchanged from before and after the ruling (49 percent of Americans has a “great deal/quite a lot” of confidence in the Court in 1999, 50 percent did in 2001). But if you erode something continuously and over a long enough period of time, nothing remains unscathed. Exhibit A is the precipitous tumble of the Department of Justice and the FBI in the eyes of Republicans (72 percent of whom believe “some members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize President Trump through politically motivated investigations”) after only a little more than a year of sustained attacks from a Republican president.
This loss of trust in democracy, not just in the U.S. but across Europe, has multiple causes: changes in technology and the proliferation of ideas and information, inequality exacerbated by globalization, and opportunistic politicians that see political gain in deepening divisions within and among countries chief among them.
But often overlooked is the absence of any unifying threat or genuine competition to the democratic model, such as the one Soviet communism once posed (China’s state-capitalist communism is a legitimate alternative, but difficult to replicate at scale).
It’s worth remembering that democracies’ shortcomings—and there are certainly shortcomings—become magnified in a vacuum. But it’s still better than all the alternatives out there. Even in 2018.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. Subscribe to Signal on Medium for more views and analysis of global politics from GZERO Media.