Global Issues

How pervasive has government distrust gotten?

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Political theorist Ivan Krastev believes that we are witnessing a “crisis of democracy.”

There appears to be little dissent in Europe or the United States about whether democracy is the best form of government, Krastev says in a foreboding talk given at TEDGlobal 2012. “Democracy is the only game in town,” says Krastev. “The problem is that many people have started to believe that it is not a game worth playing.”

Over the past 30 years, he says, trust in the efficacy of democracy has begun to erode. People feel less and less like their vote matters—that while they may be able to change who is in power, they are not able to affect what actions their government takes. The consequences? A decline in electoral turnout coupled with a growing sense of distrust of those in power.

To hear Krastev’s fascinating and counterintuitive thoughts on how this crisis came to be, listen to his talk. Below, an assortment of surveys about government mistrust, so you can judge the situation for yourself.

In his talk, Krastev shares some startling recent findings—that only 18% of Italian and just 15% of Greek citizens believe that their vote matters. Krastev pulled these numbers from the European Commission’s “Future of Europe” public opinion survey, published in April 2012. (Download the full results from the European Commission website.) In Denmark and Sweden, faith in government remains high, with 96% and 89% of survey respondents believing that their vote is meaningful. But by contrast, Romanian and Lithuanian citizens  reported feeling largely powerless in their electoral system. Looking at the 27 countries of the European Union as a whole, only 52% of survey respondents said that they believe their vote matters inside their country. And just 33% believe that their vote matters in the context of the European Union at large.

Krastev also referenced another “Future of Europe” survey question in his talk. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “Nowadays, there is a big gap between the people’s opinion and the decisions taken by the political leaders,” an overwhelming majority of respondents answered “totally agree” or “tend to agree.” Overall, 89% of Europeans believe that there is a gap between policymakers and the public. See how it breaks down by country in the chart below.

Edelman, the global public relations firm, has conducted an annual “Trust Barometer” for 12 years running. (Download the full 2012 survey at the Edelman website.) In 2012, the survey showed the biggest decline in government trust in the survey’s history. In 2011, 52% of survey respondents across the globe said that they trusted their government to do what is right. This year, the number plummeted to 43%. While in several countries—including the United States—the government trust rating held steady, in Brazil it dropped a whopping 53 percentage points. Meanwhile, Japan suffered a 26-point decline in government trust, while South Korea saw a 17-point drop. See the breakdown by country in the chart below.

In the United States, trust in the government has declined rapidly over the past few decades. The Pew Research Center has kept data on public trust in the government since 1958, and released the chart below in 2010. In 1958, more than 70% of those surveyed trusted the government to make good decisions. In 2010, the number plummeted to under 20 percent. (Though there were temporary spikes in the 1980s and the early 2000s.) While Pew’s 2011 survey showed that those saying they were “angry” at the government had declined from 23% to 14%, it’s hard not to notice the extreme downward trend on the chart below. (Download the complete 2011 “Attitudes Toward Government Survey” at the Pew website.)

So, what can be done? While many believe that the key to restoring a sense of trust in the government is to create greater transparency and openness, Ivan Krastev worries that this will not be enough.

“Transparency is not about restoring trust in institutions. Transparency is the politics of managing mistrust,” says Krastev. He suggests that when officials are watched with an eagle eye, fewer talented people will want to enter the field of governance. And transparency is relative: “Any unveiling is also veiling. No matter how transparent our governments want to be, governments will be selectively transparent.”

Stay tuned for a Q&A with Ivan Krastev where we ask him the very important question: What can be done to make governments more trustworthy?

Comments (30)

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  • Sven AERTS commented on Aug 14 2012

    What the heck… why can’t I “like” a comment anymore? Where’s the ‘thumbs up/down” buttons?

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  • commented on Aug 14 2012

    This doesn’t show some kind of irrational “distrust”, it shows a fair and mostly accurate picture of social differences. The government everywhere consists of upper-middle-class and upper-class people, who mostly cater to their own social strata.

    Thus trust in government is higher where social differences are smaller, In other words, the correlation between government trust, and GINI is high.

    Sweden and Denmark have the worlds lowest GINI, and consequently the worlds highest trust. The Swedes trust the government because social differences are small, that is, the median swede has interests that match the interests of the upper classes closely, whereas the same cannot be said about Cyprus or Greece.

  • commented on Aug 13 2012

    It’s important to add the great social costs of distrust. When we do not trust our elected or non-elected officials, we don’t elect majorities which slows the pace of good public policy. The cost to taxpayers of additional oversight, regulations, commissions, additional elections, etc. can be calculated in real dollars that could be better spent elsewhere.

    Media, and we ourselves, perpetuate distrust with polarized views and attacks on people rather than on policy. We need to get back to a place where we can look at context and where we can spare more than a nanosecond to consider real policy as opposed to buying into a soundbite. We have to stop vilifying people with whom we disagree and remember that trust is based on benevolence and credibility. Governments, organizations and individuals would do well to remember that and to build on each for happier and more productive environments.

  • Steve Szabo commented on Aug 13 2012


  • Justen Robertson commented on Aug 13 2012

    I find this whole presentation somewhat baffling. The speaker details on the one hand how the elites who are running the government are breeding distrust in the public and inspiring dissent and withdrawal from the system; and on the other hand, why it’s a shame that we don’t trust the government anymore and how we can coerce people into trusting it more.

    I also find it frankly bizarre that he cites counter-culture, counter-institutional, counter-establishment revolutions as what has gone right in democracy, despite the fact that the agents of government were instrumental not in embracing, but in suppressing those revolutions.

    Let me put forth an alternate view: Kickstarter is democracy. Indiegogo is democracy. Bitcoin is democracy. Regulatory boards, institutes of science and art, and central banks, in contrast, are the opposite: controlled and administered by an uncaring elite. Democracy is still winning, but we’re moving into the next phase now: direct democracy. Distrust of the institutions attempting to suppress and subvert that paradigm shift is *exactly* what we need. As much as possible, as often as possible, question what the political elite are up to. As little as possible, allow them to control what you think or how you act; and as little as possible, facilitate their ability to act and speak against your interests.

    We don’t need to restore faith in failed institutions, or to turn the clock back via reformism so they can fail all over again. We need to focus on easing the transition into the new paradigm with as much grace and as little violence as possible, and that means spending ever more time developing, supporting and promoting the new institutions in the shell of the old, while depriving the ability of the old to commit acts of violence and intimidation in desperate attempt to cling to the status quo.

    • Justen Robertson commented on Aug 13 2012

      Side note, I don’t blame the internet for political sensationalism in the mainstream media, except insofar as it has contributed to their desperation to retain a dwindling audience. The internet gives me the opportunity to stay in my little box, but only if I actively avoid reading, hearing or speaking to anything or anyone who will challenge my position. Before now all one had to do was keep the television pointed at media establishment 1, 2, or 3 to get one’s fully spun, filtered, and pre-digested version of reality, as approved by one of your three opinion-mills of choice. I have a very difficult time comprehending the argument that being potentially exposed to countless points of view on the internet, which are very difficult to completely filter to ones preference, is inferior to being exposed to a handful of pre-selected poitns of view that one can filter to a single coherent view simply by avoiding hitting the wrong button on a remote.

  • commented on Aug 13 2012

    “The problem is that many people have started to believe that it is not a game worth playing.”

    Let me edit this: “The problem is that many people have started to believe that it is not the game we are actually playing.”

    There you go, I fixed that for you. ;)

    • Moody KDoost commented on Aug 13 2012

      Well said

    • commented on Aug 13 2012

      Great edit!

  • commented on Aug 13 2012

    Reblogged this on Cantankerous Gentlemen and commented:
    Yea ok and exactly who takes the blame? The pols.

  • Curt Doolittle commented on Aug 13 2012

    This ‘CRISIS” was discussed pretty commonly in the literature after the fall of the soviet union. By 1992, we were seeing evidence that the intellectual community was giving up on democracy, and the rise of the muslim states, and china have further hardened that emerging consensus.

    There are quite a few of us who, over the past century, and most importantly over the past thirty years, have struggled to solve either the problem of the secular socialist state or it’s inverse, private government, as a means of solving the obvious problem, which is that democracy is simply a slow road to socialism and totalitarianism.

  • Jay Smyth commented on Aug 13 2012

    And where is data regarding direct democracies such as Switzerland in Mr.Krastev’s research ?

  • commented on Aug 13 2012

    I don’t trust this data.

    • Tom Stasinski commented on Aug 14 2012

      Me neither. It doesn’t represents hard facts, just feelings and opinions that are projected outside but not even necessarily held. People in many European countries, including mine, tend to complain just in case, and it’s against our culture to say everything is great.
      But the bigger problem is the nature of this survey. I had a look at and basically all questions are biased resulting in skewed answers. It is a safe bet that a statement that “nowadays there is a big gap between public opinion and the decisions taken by political leaders” will generate more agreement than a more neutral question like “is there such a gap?”.
      The only value such a survey has to offer is year-on-year comparison where it can reflect changes in society.
      In any case it should be contrasted / or based on real data, e.g. general population demographics VS politicians demographics, or the percentage of budget spent on people’s needs VS on military, bureaucracy etc.

  • Muhammed Riyas commented on Aug 13 2012


  • commented on Aug 13 2012

    Reblogged this on tekArtist.