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  • Brendan Shaw

The elites vs the rest: can trust barometers predict political disruption?


“There is today a division of labour between the elite and the masses.”

- Yuval Noah Harari

It’s widely written now that ‘disruption’ is affecting society’s politics as well as its industrial and social sectors.

The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2017 picked an interesting trend that played out through the course of 2016 and 2017.

Source: Edelmann Trust Barometer 2017, https://www.slideshare.net/EdelmanInsights/2017-edelman-trust-barometer-global-results-71035413, slide 5, accessed 2/2/2029.

Each year the Trust Barometer surveys people in over 33,000 people in up to 27 countries on their trust in major institutions in their country, such as government, business, non-government organisations and the media.

It's a fascinating survey that is replete with really cool social metrics.

In each country, the survey also splits out the population sample into ‘informed public’ – university-educated people of working age in the top quartile of income levels who regularly read media on politics and business – and the ‘general public’ – basically everyone else that’s not in the informed public.

In recent years, the Edelman Barometer has picked a growing gap in trust in national institutions between the informed public and general public across most countries.

The gap grew noticeably to 13 points between the two groups in 2016 across the 27 countries – the informed public having 13 percentage point higher trust in their country’s institutions, before the gap blew out even further in the survey published in early 2017 to 16 percentage points.

The story in the survey was that increasingly in many countries the trust the working educated elites had in their national institutions was increasingly out of step with the lack of trust the rest of the general public had.

The punchline from the 2017 report based on data from the 2016 survey is that the three top countries in 2016 that had the largest gaps in trust between the informed public and the general public were:

  • The United States – 21 point gap

  • The United Kingdom – 19 point gap, and

  • France – 18 point gap.

Interestingly, all three countries experienced dramatic political disruption or surprises in the survey period: the US elected Donald Trump as President – a ‘non-establishment’ disruptive candidate, the UK voted to leave the European Union in Brexit, and France had a presidential election between a far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the latter winning the Presidency to become the youngest French president since Napoleon after starting a brand new political party disconnected from the established political parties of old.

Arguably, the Edelman Trust Barometer of 2017 picked the key trends influencing major political events – the three countries with the biggest gaps in institutional trust between the working educated elite and the general populace showed the most dramatic surprises in elections.

Why does this matter today?

Well, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer was released a matter of weeks ago.

Source: Edelman Trust Barometer 2019, https://www.edelman.com/trust-barometer, slide 8, accessed 2/2/2019.

And, again, among the many interesting trends the 2019 Barometer has found is that across 27 countries, the gap between the informed public and the general public has blown out back to the same 16-point gap – equal to that seen in the 2017 survey.

Again, in 2019, in many countries the general public do not trust government, business, media or NGOs to anywhere near the same extent as the working educated elites.

Source: Edelman Trust Barometer 2019, https://www.edelman.com/trust-barometer, slide 9, accessed 2/2/2019.

And the countries this time around in 2019 where the gap in institutional trust between the elites and the rest of society is widest?:

  • United Kingdom – 24* point gap

  • Canada – 20* point gap

  • Germany – 18* point gap

  • France – 18 point gap

  • India – 17* point gap

  • South Korea – 17* point gap

  • Japan – 16 point gap

  • Saudi Arabia – 15 point gap

  • United Arab Emirates – 15 point gap

  • Indonesia – 14* point gap

  • Mexico – 14 point gap

A few things to note here:

  1. Six countries with stars * have recorded their highest ever gap in trust in institutions between the informed public and general public (UK, Canada, Germany, India, South Korea and Indonesia)

  2. The countries in bold are facing national elections this year, with the UK included here because it could go to an election this year under one of the many Brexit scenarios, and

  3. This means that three countries facing elections this year: Canada, India and Indonesia, plus the UK if you include that, are all going to the polls at a time when they have recorded their highest ever gap in institutional trust between the elites and the general public.

If 2016-17 is anything to go buy, it might be worth keeping an eye on some of these elections during 2019 to watch for any Brexit/Trump/Macron-like shocks to occur - especially those countries recording gaps near or above 20, namely Canada, India and (possibly) the United Kingdom.

And while Germany and France do not have elections this year, both recorded high gaps in trust.

Germany scored a record gap of 18 points during a period when Angela Merkel announced she will be stepping down as Chancellor after historic losses by her political coalition to extremes on the left and right of politics.

Meanwhile France, also with 18 points – although not its highest – endured months of riots across the country by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement, leading to political negotiations and a community consultation process.

Of course, the reasons for these gaps are many and varied, but there's been much commentary that domestic populations' dissatisfaction with globalisation, which is often supported by the elites but less so by the general populace, could be a factor.

Political junkies have got a lot to watch in the coming months.


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