2016 may well go down in history as the year in which trust in political parties – or rather the political establishment – declined considerably at least in parts of the electorate.
It would be incorrect to say that this phenomenon only benefits far-right parties, however, although their rise as a challenging force against liberal democratic principles is equally noticeable. Anti-establishment sentiments can vary from leftist to right-wing ideology, but the common denominator is the decreased certainty of mainstream parties’ claim to power.
While the United States’ presidential election campaigns in 2016 have served as an excellent point of reference for this (i.e. Donald Trump as right-wing anti-establishment candidate and Bernie Sanders as left-wing anti-establishment candidate), this phenomenon isn’t restricted to a specific national context.
Combining elements can, however, be located in this anti-establishment sentiment. The financial crisis of 2008 made slowly growing economic concerns more explicit in society, and the immigration crisis of 2015 served as a second catalytic point for critically challenging mainstream political parties and the political establishment they represent.
The political establishment has long held a monopoly on reasoned and reasonable politics, which were represented as best serving everyone. The recent crises have seriously called that claim to question. The result has been decreased belief in the capacity of mainstream politics to offer any substantial change.
This seeming lack of efficacy readily translates into a lack of trust, especially if there is a failure to offer political or even just rhetorical alternatives. The apparent impotence of establishment politics to effectively and determinedly counter crises gives room and rise to non- or anti-establishment forces.
The economy plays an important role in fostering political trust in the sense that safeguarding a functional national economy is a key political responsibility. The IMF, contributing to its recent turn of distinctly critical approaches towards neoliberalism, has argued that inequality in society erodes social trust. The IMF is here tapping into a growing scientific consensus (see Jordah 2007). Robert Putnam (1995) argues that this applies not only to politics but also social capital, though Eric Uslaner (2002) argues that political trust should be separated from social or general trust.
Still, it seems that the decline of trust in the United States as coincided with the spread of globalization and free trade, the benefits of which are not equally distributed in society. Growing inequality erodes the trust in institutions – the foundation of establishment politics – markedly in the lower end of the income quintiles. Especially if social mobility is seen to stagnate, i.e. if people see that their children are no longer likely to be better off than themselves, trust in the establishment can be expected to drop further.
This has led to some commentators noting the similarities of grievances experienced between Donald Trump supporters and Brexit supporters – both seen as anti-establishment campaigns. Especially Brexit was linked to a rejection of expert opinion in favor of the experiences of the common man, especially as that expert opinion was mostly equated with promoting establishment views (though often accurately so).
The same can be argued to apply also to the resistance of the former Bernie Sanders supporters regarding the economic authority of Wall Street. Thus the decrease of trust not only affects politics but also other institutions linked to politics.
This is hardly surprising. Anti-establishment campaigns are often populist campaigns, where the opinions and experiences of the common man are emphasized. If those experiences and opinions are not shared by establishment politicians or reflected in establishment politics, the decrease in trust is linked to diverging worldviews.
In essence, how can a voter trust a politician who sees the world (e.g. the benefits of globalization and multiculturalism) in such a different way? The prerequisite for establishing political trust is sharing one’s fundamental values (Uslaner 2002). The populist erosion of establishment political trust takes place at both ends of the political spectrum, reflecting a growing distaste of party-politics.
Serving in political office often has a political cost, as the parties in government tend to lose popularity compared to the opposition. This is especially true in times of crisis, when the government is called upon to implement harsh policies. This is something that the True Finns party has noticed in only a year in government, as its popularity has dropped considerably (down 7.6% in July 2016 from 17.7% in the elections).
Arguably for a populist party to be involved in government without an outright revolution of policy – to become a part of the establishment – is a painful outcome. The trust placed by the electorate in populist parties reflects at the same time their distrust of the establishment, and their trust in the populist party to change the status quo. When that fails to materialize, and when the populist party finds itself in the same exercise of “politicking” as mainstream parties, the disappointment and decrease of trust is measurable.
As economic concerns have been slowly growing, so has trust in government, in the UK but also particularly in the United States been decreasing. The anti-establishment sentiment had been running high already before the entrance of the Tea Party to political office (which was feared to compromise the movement’s political integrity), but the 2016 primary process revealed anti-establishment movements within both political parties.
“Proactive support for a candidate could possibly serve as an estimator for political trust or at least faith in the candidates, whereas, conversely, support based on the rejection of the opponent boils down to merely choosing the lesser of two evils.”
The rather remarkable outcome of the primaries is that the Republicans selected their anti-establishment candidate (Trump), whereas the Democrats chose a firm establishment candidate (Clinton). In a poll conducted before the national conventions of both parties, that in two separate polls over half (up to 58%) of either party voters stated they were dissatisfied with their selection of nominees.
Many voters express that they are voting against the other candidate rather than voting for their own. Especially young voters, those with the least experience and arguably the least trust for taken-as-given establishment politics feel dissatisfied now by a wide margin when compared to previous elections.
While this is a relatively common phenomenon in a limited contest of two candidates, it also speaks of the experienced failing of the political establishment to provide reasonable alternatives. Proactive support for a candidate could possibly serve as an estimator for political trust or at least faith in the candidates, whereas, conversely, support based on the rejection of the opponent boils down to merely choosing the lesser of two evils.
How much Clinton has actually been hurt by appearing as the presumptive establishment nominee remains to be seen; the involvement of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in apparently propping up Clinton’s candidacy, assumedly at Sanders’s expense, can be expected to serve as another example of the untrustworthiness of establishment politics. Sanders voters might experience this collusion of the establishment as defrauding them of their legitimate voice in the political process, thus reaffirming their suspicions of bias.
Trust in Hillary Clinton has been volatile as it is, given how much she has been pilloried for her insider credentials and as the status quo candidate. More recent polls, however, suggest that the mainstream electorate might evaluate her qualification favorably when compared to Trump.
Trump, in turn, gathers trust from his base on the basis of being an outspoken outsider – the verbal gaffes of Trump have been extensively (and negatively) documented but have also served to distinguish him as “not another politician”. He has been called a “chaos candidate”, which has only increased his appeal. This had led to some fairly outlandish claims for any political campaign in the liberal western democratic context, including direct insinuations of expected voter fraud.
While widely debunked, Trump’s rhetoric runs the risk of deepening existing anti-establishment suspicions and heightening a sense of elite capture of the democratic process. This would intuitively be ruinous for political trust among Trump’s core voters, primed to reject any other outcome in the elections than a Trump victory.
After all, Trump promises to “take America back” (as did Brexit promise to “take back control”), and his insinuations suggests the powers that be aim to defraud the American people once again. Rather than inspire trust in the political system, Trump’s largely unfounded rhetoric specifically emphasizes a sense of distrust, which would legitimate highly problematic undemocratic measures against electoral manipulation or his opponent in the elections.
Political trust has been fostered by institutional support in western democracies, but the resurgence of powerful populist movements targeting the political establishment by articulating genuine grievances felt by an arguably neglected part of the electorate have a detrimental effect on political trust.
The lack of trust experienced and expressed by these citizens and voters has – at least in the US – been met with opportunism in exploiting that distrust by Donald Trump, and the reentrechment of establishment politics by Hillary Clinton.
In short, Trump’s opportunism exploits existing social cleavages and seeks to expand them for political leverage, whereas Clinton more or less reinforces the status quo and the infallibility of establishment politics.
Decreasing trust makes the political process more combative in nature. For the sake of enduring political trust, both of these options are untenable: the prior sows political distrust as a political strategy while the latter doesn’t treat with the causes of declining political trust sincerely.
Jordahl, H. 2007. “Inequality and Trust.” Working Paper Series 715, Research Institute of Industrial Economics. http://www.ifn.se/wfiles/wp/wp715.pdf
Putnam, R. D. 1995. “Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America.” Political Science and Politics, 28(4): 664-665.
Uslaner, Eric M. 2002. The Moral Foundations of Trust. Cambridge University Press.
 It is actually fairly ironic that in some cases the gaffes have been serious enough to require spokespersons to clarify Trump’s meaning: when the straight-talker needs clarifying interpreters, it may hurt him in the polls.
Mikko Poutanen is a doctoral researcher for political science at the School of Management in Tampere University, specializing in qualitative research methods