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The Trust Deficit: What Does it Mean?

By Frank Graves

[Ottawa – May 14, 2013] – Trust has become a scarce societal resource. This isn’t a recent problem and the decline of trust has been a steady downward march for the past 40 years in upper North America. Only about one four citizens believe they can trust their federal governments (it either Ottawa or Washington) to do the right thing. Contrary to views that this precipitous decline in trust is caused by specific events (e.g., Watergate, Sponsorship), the evidence shows that there are much bigger cultural forces at play.

One of the most significant changes over the past fifty years has been the movement towards a much less trustful, more individualistic citizenry. Our recent work on value shifts shows that this movement to a post-materialistic culture continues. Whereas the blind trust which accompanied the age of conformism in the fifties wasn’t particularly healthy, neither is the conspicuous paucity if basic trust in today’s world The old elite accommodation model may have been fuelled by blind trust but the lacuna of basic trust today is a threat to both social cohesion and even economic performance. Scepticism and wariness are useful up to a point, but it’s hard to make much progress when so many people mistrust so many others so much of the time.

We have been talking about trust in government but the new post-materialist outlook also provides scant trust to business and professions (notably mistrustful of bigger, not smaller businesses). The mistrust in government is much more focused on politicians and political parties, not officials. We have other indicators showing trust in democracy plummeting to new lows in Canada. The paucity of trust in politicians is almost cartoonishly low. Canadians dutifully note that they trust individuals like themselves, but only a small fraction trust politicians. Clearly, politicians cannot be drawn from the mainstream of the general public who accord themselves solid trust ratings.

In our most recent survey, we asked Canadians to rate their trust in some occupations and institutions. As this work was linked to some remarks I was making to newspapers and journalists, I asked some questions about those subjects. We also asked about some other groups that we have been tracking for some time.

A few observations are in order. First of all, it is possible to achieve trust in cynical 21st century Canada. Nurses and Doctors have terrific levels of trust. We know that when asked, this trusted list extends to a few other professions such as judges, but not lawyers or lobbyists. It is also notable that those occupations which show changes in trust levels since 1996 are all down, not up.

There is another interesting profession on the highly rated list – teachers. It is ironic to note that the recent advertisements pillorying Justin Trudeau for being a teacher (“he is in way over his head”) may have miscalculated just how damaging being a teacher is in the minds of Canadians. With 63% positive trust, teachers dramatically eclipse the almost non-existent trust levels accorded to politicians. The response to the ad has been pretty unhelpful to the Conservative Party. A large random sample of Canadians viewing the ad saw it as ineffectual and objectionable. In our polling, the Conservatives have gone down in the polls since this ad started airing. Indeed, perhaps they should have attacked Justin Trudeau as a ‘politician’ rather than as a teacher if they really wanted to shatter trust in him. It may well be that the frequency of tactics such as the ad itself explain the abysmal trust levels Canadians accord to politicians.

It appears that the ‘winners’ in the trust hierarchy are those which are seen focused on the public interest or welfare. Middling levels of trust are accorded to the mainstream media, journalists, and yes pollsters. Somewhat distressingly for the polling community, our trust scores have declined sharply since the mid-nineties. My speculation is that this reflects an increasingly broken relationship between polling and the media.

Finally, while the mainstream media and pollsters might be chagrined by their middling trust scores. They will be heartened to know that they are still doing much better than the new media which many see replacing the old mainstream media. Both social media and ‘bloggers” receive very low trust levels. The future of news may be digital, but some of the public are looking at social media and blogging with very sceptical eyes.

One final ironic note is the relationship between party preference and trust. By a very significant margin, supporters of the Conservative Party are much less trusting than other party supporters. This is particularly true when it comes to newspapers. Despite the fact that almost all of Canada’s newspapers have endorsed the Conservative Party in the last three elections, this love is not shared. Conservative supporters are far less likely to trust newspapers and news than all other party supporters.

Click here for the full report: Full Report (May 14, 2013)

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