In our crowded, hot, interdependent world, humanity faces challenges that it cannot meet absent sweeping exertions of state power at both the national and global levels. The burgeoning coronavirus pandemic has illuminated this reality in recent weeks. The ever-deeping climate crisis reiterates the same point every day.
But fostering the social trust necessary pursuing ambitious collective action — and weathering all the disruptions that attend it — can be hard to sustain at the national level, let alone the planetary level (and recent European history underscores the difficulty of scaling up governance merely to the continental one). And over the past two decades, political elites the world over have done more to undermine their constituents’ faith in state power than to consolidate it.
In 2002, Pew Research asked citizens across 20 nations whether they believed that “the state is run for the benefit of all of the people.” In nearly all jurisdictions, majorities said yes. Eighteen years, one historic financial crisis and innumerable globalization and climate-induced disruptions later, faith in government has declined significantly in 11 of those countries, while increasing in only three (Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Japan). In Germany, the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, and Lebanon, faith in the beneficence of the state has fallen from being a majority position.
Trust in political elites is similarly low. Asked whether elected officials care what people like them think, overwhelming majorities in 34 countries surveyed said no.
Pew’s report does not offer much insight into the roots of the declining trust it documents. And the proximate sources of disaffection vary considerably from one nation to another. In the United States, our government’s xenophobic abuses of immigrants are a source of outrage for a wide swath of the public; in Hungary, the state’s virulent xenophobia has earned Viktor Orbán’s government aberrantly high marks from the public, with some 74 percent of Hungarians saying their state is run for the benefit of all the people (refugees ostensibly do not fall under majority’s definition of “people”). Relatedly, in places where right-wing populist parties are out of power, their supporters are among the most distrustful of government; in places where such parties rule, reactionary nationalists are among the most fervent statists.
As one would expect, assessments of whom the state serves are also deeply correlated with perceptions of the economy. Those who regard their nation’s economic situation as bad are much more likely to take a dour view of how their democracy is functioning.
How precisely progressive forces can foster a faith in state power broad enough to facilitate a historic energy transition — and greater global cooperation on matters of climate, tax evasion, labor rights, and public health — is unclear. In many nations, the conflicts beneath (ethno-)nationalist traditionalists and cosmopolitan liberals appear inescapably zero-sum. And in many contexts, reactionary plutocrats have found that arming the immoderate rebels in such culture wars is a handy way of suppressing latent conflicts between labor and capital.
But it’s hard to see how our species meets the challenges of the coming decades (and/or, weeks) unless more of us accept “big,” democratically-accountable government as our collective instrument and potential savior.