by Kevin Zapata Celestino
In his work “The Republic,” Plato believed that the ideal state was founded on the trust that the ruler’s decisions would be based exclusively on the pursuit of the greater good for the people. Similarly, in the “Daodejing,” Laozi considered trust a vital factor in governing since leadership could only be effective if people truly believed in their master. In the worldview of the Mayans, trust was an essential value to achieve common welfare,1 and for the Vikings, many practices such as trading were sustained on informal trust-based institutions.2 From Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics” to Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditation,” trust has been recognized as a value that promotes the virtue of character and promotes a good way of living. Almost any society in history has embraced trust as the cornerstone for harmony within the community. For this reason, many classical social scientists such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim emphasized the importance of communitarian trust for individual prosperity.3
Trust in the other members of the community and its institutions is the foundation of what is known as ‘social capital.’ Social capital facilitates cooperation among groups, maximizing emotional, social, and economic benefits,4 5 6 and also seems to play a fundamental role in maintaining public trust in democratic institutions.7 This is why the low levels of trust in democratic institutions in recent years are worrying. In the United States, two-thirds of the citizens showed high levels of distrust in the government,8 and only thirty-four percent of the citizens in the European Union trusted their national governments.9 According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, a significant number of people around the globe perceive their governments as incompetent and unethical.10 The consequence is two-fold: on the one hand, it impedes the ability to solve public problems;11 on the other hand, it aggravates the risk of distrust being used to manipulate public opinion to support poor policies that end up threatening the survival of the democratic institutions.12 Further, distrust can be easily transformed into fear that triggers many forms of violence. This is why regaining public trust should be a priority for any government.
2. Fear and lies
Fear undoubtedly can be considered one of the most decisive factors influencing human behavior. Consequently, it is expected that fear is used as a weapon by different actors that support aggressive agendas against racial and religious minorities, for example, against migrants, members of the LGBT community, and many other vulnerable groups. This is known as the “culture of fear,” suggesting that people’s emotions, mainly fear, anguish, and hopelessness, are exploited to impose hidden agendas and control societies.13 Correspondingly, these emotions define contemporary societies causing dangerous “friend-enemy” dichotomies.14 Unfortunately, this form of manipulation through fear can quickly induce violence, such as the terrorist attacks perpetrated by white supremacists in the United States or New Zealand in recent years or the aggressions against Muslims in Sri Lanka.15
Fear finds fertile ground in ignorance and misinformation, so fake news, defined as false content presented as news and reproduced through traditional and digital media, represents a severe threat to governments.16 Unfortunately, lies have flourished in the “post-truth” era and discredit many of the institutions that support our democratic societies.17 No matter how much evidence and facts prove that something is a lie, if people are driven by fear and other negative emotions, they will be “immune” to the truth. Therefore, societies are under constant attack of ‘hoax news,’ propaganda, and many other forms of disinformation. In Europe, over two-thirds of the people encounter fake news at least once a week.18
Fear, fed by lies and spread through media, especially social media, has become an essential tool for these groups with unbearable agendas, such as deniers, supremacists, religious extremists, and conspiracy theorists because it represents a tool of control and power.19 20 This has created a context of exhaustion, apathy, and disengagement from the public sphere to the extent that it affects public life and eventually puts the foundations of democracy at risk.21 For this reason, governments should desperately seek to regain public trust to fight against fatalism, radicalism, and denial, which contribute to worsening the situation.
3. Public solidarity as a solution
The crisis of distrust and the manipulation of emotions force us to ask how to rebuild trust in this chaotic era. It is clear that the utilitarian individualism paradigm has done little to reduce fear but, in many cases, aggravated social inequalities that feed distrust and injustice.22 The extreme individualism of the last decades has deteriorated the social bonds within the communities, leaving individuals vulnerable and fearful.23 Therefore, if governments, politicians, and policymakers aspire to regain the public’s trust in democratic institutions, they should have one concept in mind: public solidarity.
Trust among individuals is essential to developing strong and stable societies.24 However, how do we proceed to build that trust when the social and political environment is intoxicated with fear? I believe one can learn from the philosophy of León Bourgois, the leading promoter of solidarism. For Bourgois, solidarity – understood as the interdependence of individuals subjected to mutual rights and obligations – created welfare, and this welfare, which was promoted by public institutions, built trust.25 Thus, solidarity plays an essential role in gaining people’s trust because collective actions guided by public institutions can improve all community members‘ quality of life.
The above is corroborated by the OECD, which states that responding to citizens’ needs with good quality public services is the cornerstone of trust in government.26 Accordingly, poor public services are strongly related to mistrust of governmental institutions.27 Furthermore, responding to citizens’ needs increases confidence and generates a perception of “value” when the institutions provide a positive experience.28 This value makes people loyal to the institutions that provide those services and protect them when threatened.
The pursuit of collective welfare through public services and strong public and social institutions, besides promoting people’s trust in their governments, also seems to influence their level of happiness.29 30 31 And so, it is not strange that the highest-ranking countries in the World Happiness Report 2020 are those that guarantee extensive welfare benefits and well-functioning governmental institutions.32 This is why governments should endorse public solidarity as a fundamental value within societies.
Although public solidarity may sound unappealing to many who believe that collective action and extended welfare could represent a hazard to individual freedom, the truth is that the welfare provided by strong public institutions is fundamental to reinforcing individual liberties and rights.33 Instead of undermining particular action, societies with high levels of public solidarity tend to increase individuals’ potential and self-realization because state institutions guarantee them social protection in case of an unfortunate event in their lives.34 Solidarity emerges across all individuals no matter their circumstances because we all will face an adverse situation at some point in our lives.35 Thus, public solidarity represents an ideal balance between individual freedom and social equality.
4. Building public solidarity
Although solidarity is considered a binding force capable of transforming societies and the main element that sticks together our communities,36 37 it is not a spontaneous process. On the contrary, it requires the active promotion of a robust, inclusive, and nested identity.38 Thus, it is possible to generate understanding among groups and improve intergroup attitudes and willingness to work together for the greater good.39 Inclusive identity strongly influences people’s decision to seek social justice.40 For example, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s inclusive rhetoric appealing to shared values like empathy and compassion after the terrorist attacks in Christchurch created a favorable social environment to combat islamophobia in New Zealand.41
Another essential element to building public solidarity involves recognizing the general value of accomplishing the moral duties required in the community.42 This means encouraging positive attitudes toward the citizens’ obligations that allow for preserving public institutions.43 For instance, recognizing the value of paying taxes and celebrating when people fulfill this duty increases people’s willingness to pay taxes, which results in a better provision of public services that reinforces public trust in governmental institutions. Promoting moral virtues within society is necessary to strengthen the bonds between individuals and prevent disintegration.44 Hence, governments should recognize and promote those attitudes that enhance solidarity.
Finally, long-term evidence must be provided to the public regarding the positive effects of collective action. This way, individuals develop a consciousness of the value of their moral actions and grow a sense of belonging due to the rewards of complying with their obligations.45 Moreover, this creates a collective commitment in the long run that allows individuals to reproduce a determined emotional state where solidarity can be “felt.”46
Building public solidarity inevitably will lead to a confrontation with those groups that only seek power for their interests. It would be naïve to think they will not display all their resources to maintain their influence. Nevertheless, engaging in politics is the only way to confront the crisis of fear. No matter how unattractive politics may seem, it is, after all, the only path that promises alternatives for a better future.47 We should respond to fear and anger with “politics of hope” because hope allows us to rethink ideas and beliefs and ultimately motivate positive change.48 49 In the end, social and political mobilization based on hope can be more potent than fear.50
Distrust has intoxicated the public debate with fear promoting antisocial and destructive behaviors that threaten democratic governments. Extreme individualization and the breaking of the social and communal bonds are leaving individuals fearful and prone to the manipulation of groups with selfish agendas. The significant risk of the aforementioned is dismantling the basis that supports political institutions, leading to a vicious spiral of social toxicity. To revert this situation, governments and policymakers must recover the basic sense of community. Still, this purpose certainly requires the will to rescue public solidarity as the core value of governmental actions. When governments and public institutions are genuinely concerned with providing services and solutions that work for all, those institutions gain weight and appreciation from the public. Only public solidarity allows collective welfare to emerge, thus rebuilding the broken bridges between groups and individuals and boosting positive attitudes that help to preserve institutions.
Building public solidarity entails the creation of an inclusive identity that pushes all groups to work together no matter their societal differences. It furthermore mandates the recognition and celebration of those moral attitudes that strengthen the sense of community. Moreover, evidence of the benefits of collective action must be presented to the public so they can develop consciousness and appreciation for the public institutions. Building public solidarity is a matter of politics, and politics is important because it defines our reality. Engaging in the politics of hope is the only way that we can produce a natural and sustainable change.
Thomas Jefferson once said that “the care of human life and happiness is the only legitimate object of good government.” Hence, governments, politicians, and policymakers should consider that trust built through public solidarity could guarantee this goal.
Kevin Zapata Celestino is a current PhD researcher at The University of Edinburgh specializing in qualitative methods. He has worked as a consultant for different organisations in Mexico such as NGOs, local governments, and private enterprises in the areas of social policy, poverty reduction, and policy design.
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