A growing body of international research, most notably by Sweden’s Bo Rothstein and, in the US, Jong-Sung You, points us to what may be the underlying factor we’ll need to address if we are to turn things around: the decline of social trust. By “social trust” is meant something more than whether we trust our neighbour or others in our community or in similar circumstance. It is rather the generalized belief that most people in a society can be trusted, including those quite different from ourselves.
Social trust is not the same as political trust, but where it is high people are readier to trust their democracy, more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to government when something goes wrong, and less likely to see the latest scandal as indicative of the entire class of politicians. Even when governments perform so badly as to make political trust impossible, where social trust is high, citizens still participate, still try to make things better. Because they trust the future and their ability to influence it, they are still capable of outrage rather than the indifference or fatalism of the jaded.
High social trust implies solidarity, the sense that the members of a society share a common fate and mutual responsibility and this is reflected in greater commitment to helping others. Individuals take responsibility not only for themselves and those in their social milieu, but also for the stranger, and for the direction of their society.
As the authors suggest: “In truth, it is boredom, rather than cynicism which most accurately explains the present disillusionment with politics.”