Let's Talk about Trust - Deliberation in a Time of Divisive Politics

Madeleine Egan

Madeleine Egan is an honours student at the University of Melbourne.

The return of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party to federal parliament is often invoked to illustrate a bigger story: the rise of populism and the crisis of liberal democracy.  In her first speech to the Australian Senate in 2016, Hanson said, "We are in danger of being swamped by Muslims who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own".  While some objected to the speech’s racism or Islamophobia, many commentators condemned her message as “divisive”.  Among them, the Business Council of Australia protested that, “Australia’s economic and ­social prosperity is founded on ­diversity. Tolerance and inclusiveness is a hallmark of our way of life”.  The rhetoric of nationalist populism, audible in Australia and louder still in countries like the Netherlands, France and the United States, provokes anxiety in part because division along the fault lines of ethnicity and religion, is understood to threaten our “way of life”—that is, democracy.

In divided times, deliberation has an intuitive appeal.  What better way to find common ground than to get together and talk things over?  It’s an idea that runs deep in the deliberative tradition—Habermas believed that in plural societies, where there is no religion, or ethnicity, or other way of life that can bring us together, we must be integrated by our political culture (1996).  Deliberative politics doesn’t just allow citizens to express preferences; it helps orient citizens (and their preferences) toward the common good.

But for those interested in democratic reform or renewal, the widespread feeling that divisive politics weakens democracy is a vague brief­—too vague to tell us how deliberation could be designed as a remedy.  To understand what deliberation—or any other flavour of democratic innovation—will achieve in a time of divisive politics, we need to study division, its causes and effects. There are of course many ways to do that.  One way is to look at division in light of social trust.

Trust is a potent force in democracies.  There is ample evidence to show that communities with more people who trust others tend to have institutions that work, higher economic growth and less crime (Rothstein 2011, p.147).  Put simply, this is because when we trust other people, we can collaborate to solve shared problems.  A lack of this social trust, on the other hand, is associated with income inequality, ineffective rule of law and corruption. 

To understand social trust—what it is and how it works—it helps to look back on social capital theory.  To say that someone has social capital is to say that they can access certain benefits—like an informal loan, or help moving house—thanks to the people they know. The term entered the popular lexicon via enthusiasts such as Robert Putnam, who famously argued that social capital is what makes democracy “work” (1993).  According to this view, little exchanges among friends, neighbours and acquaintances add up to something greater—collective action on shared problems. 

Sociologist Alejandro Portes disputes this emphasis on the bright side of social capital, and points to a host of drawbacks: the exclusion of outsiders, excessive demands and restrictions on insiders, and, in the case of groups whose solidarity is forged by long-term disadvantage, social capital can discourage an individual member’s success, because it challenges the very basis for the group’s identity (1998).

The question becomes: how can we maximise the positive and minimise the negative effects of social capital?  A possible answer lies in the difference between strong and weak ties. Social capital theorists initially stressed the importance of dense networks made up of strong ties—what we might call tight-knit communities. However, after observing that people in dense networks tend to think and act like each other, Ronald Burt argued that people located between groups often have access to more diverse information, ideas, and resources (2004). There is excellent reason to believe that getting out of their bubble helps people become socially mobile.

Trust is generally understood to underpin social capital. One way to explain this relationship is to say that trust is critical infrastructure for social capital—before you give a friend’s sister a job, you need to trust that she won’t let you down. Like social capital, trust can be a blessing or curse for democracy.

To clarify when trust will either help or harm democracy, we can distinguish different types of trust. Social trust is also known as generalised trust, because it extends to other people in general, including strangers, while particularised trust is confined to a close circle of family, friends and fellow group members. This distinction is crucial. 

In a book called The Dubious Link, Arial Armony shows why.  Armony uses three case studies—civil society groups in Weimar Germany, the anti-desegregation movement in the United States, and human rights groups in Argentina—to show that strong social networks can lead to the exclusion of minorities and deepening of social fragmentation.  Where many social capital theorists had assumed that the trust that develops among people when they get together would lead to a more trusting society generally, Armony finds that the people who joined these groups wound up trusting each other more, and everyone else less.  The danger in this phenomenon, Armony argues, is that the social capital built on this trust can be mobilised for anti-democratic purposes: in Weimar Germany it was used by the Nazis to persecute Jews; in the United States it was used by white-segregationists to keep black people out of particular neighbourhoods; and in Argentina it has fuelled hostility among human rights activists toward democratic state institutions.

We have to be specific then, when we talk about building trust. Generalised trust is likely a good thing for democracy, because the social capital built on generalised trust criss-crosses social groups, and facilitates widespread cooperation to solve collective problems.  Particularised trust, on the other hand, can undermine democracy, because the social capital built on trust that doesn’t extend beyond a single group can be used to deepen prejudice, inequality and social fragmentation.

The divisive rhetoric of nationalist populism is not anti-trust.  Pauline Hanson’s opposition to immigration and multiculturalism stem from a belief that they have, “…caused crime to escalate and trust and social cohesion to decline” (2016).  But the trust she champions is limited to people like herself.  In drawing hard lines between those we should and should not trust, nationalist populism defines the contours of social fragmentation.

When divisive politics are considered in terms of social trust, a specific role emerges for deliberation: deliberative politics can counteract particularised trust and ease social fragmentation by bringing people together from across social divides.  In Australia, that means that deliberation on questions of immigration, multiculturalism and national identity should focus on diverse participation.  Social trust is just one of many lenses that deliberative innovators might use to shed light on how new modes of politics can improve the quality of democracy.

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