The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election seemed to defy all previous political norms. The incumbent seeking a second term, Donald Trump, treated the dignity and credibility of his office with utter disregard, posting and sharing fake news stories that included assertions that Obama was born in Kenya or that Biden had dementia, from both his private and public social media accounts. Despite this, he came within 42000 votes of securing another term, out of more than 100 million cast. It seems that the conventional wisdom regarding trust and governance is no longer valid, and that a government could possibly be able to stay in power even if it loses the trust of the people. Given technological advancements allowing a greater degree of information control and the rise of political polarisation, while a government that loses trust might suffer electorally, it is by no means guaranteed to fail.
The most direct way a loss of trust from the people damages the government’s standing is through slumping electoral fortunes. As citizens no longer believe the government is accountable or honest in the intentions of its legislation, it would be natural for citizens to seek a replacement. After all, are honestly and accountability not the most valued virtues in public service, where so much is at stake? That was the case, for example in the 2008 Presidential Election in Taiwan. Sitting president Chen Shui Bian’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had been in power for 8 years, but those 8 years had seen an unbroken string of corruption allegations against high-ranking ministers, including Chen himself. Voters’ trust of Chen’s government was at an all-time low and to no one’s surprise, the DPP was swept out in 2008, losing the presidency and their majorities in Parliament. However, just because Chen’s government was defeated in a landslide does not mean it was a complete failure. An electoral failure, perhaps, but slipping in the opinion polls did not prevent Chen from continuing to push through legislation, from broadening democratic reforms in what was then still a young democracy, launching further investments into computer technologies that gave Taiwanese companies a slice of the pie in lucrative industries like image processors or chip manufacturing. It is naive to suggest that garnering popular support is the only measure of a government’s success and even if a government’s poll numbers slide due to to a major scandal, it does not destroy their ability to govern and render them ineffective. Although it must be conceded that a government who has lost trust may find it harder to have the people accept its policies as legitimate, such effects are ephemeral and have little bearing when policies see fruition in the future, where any scandal is likely forgotten. Overall, a loss in trust might reduce a government’s ability to govern, but does not mean it will definitely fail at governing, despite the electoral implications.
Another way governments can remain in power if it cannot gain the people’s trust is by stifling dissent. Although democracy is the prevalent form of government in today’s world, let us not forget that autocracies nonetheless persist. In such places, the concept of press freedom or freedom of expression is laughable. Without such liberties, even if a government loses trust of the people, the dissidents are unable to coordinate in public via protests or uprisings of the sort. As such, there is little avenue for the government to be punished for its ‘trust-losing actions’, as the traditional way of doing so, via elections, has been gutted. Do North Koreans have faith in their government? Hard to tell, given the amount of brainwashing they face on a daily basis, but likely not, given how their standards of living have stagnated at Third World levels, with starvation and poverty a feature of daily life for many. However, some might argue that being able to remain in power does not mean a government is not a failure. Instead, it is contended that such governments have failed to be deemed credible and lost its position of legitimacy, which could be the greatest failure of all, to fail to be recognised by the people. But it is difficult to prove that such an impression can last. Citizens are fickle, poorly-informed for the most part and have an irritating habit of ‘forgiveness’. Putin, the Russian President, has been in power for a decade and the protests against him and his anti-democratic regime, most recently over the imprisonment of opposition leader Navalny. But such protests have come and gone, yet Putin is still there. The Russian people seem just as concerned about the economy as human rights, as the protests seem to always coincide with periods of economic downturn or drops in price of oil, a major export. As long as Putin keeps the economy going strong, his approval ratings and trust numbers go up. The conclusion from this is that any loss of trust is not permanent and governments can recover and are not doomed to fail if they have lost trust.
Finally, the rise in partisanship has also made it more difficult for governments to fail even if it is deemed untrustworthy. Essentially, people might just stop caring about credibility and more about politics. That is the trend of increased partisanship seen in some parts of the world, where voting for the party of one’s views is more important than voting for the candidate with better character (who is therefore more likely to win trust). Such political tribalism means that losing or winning the people’s trust becomes less relevant to governance, as a government’s legitimacy, credibility and electoral support becomes tied to how many conservatives and liberals answer opinion polls and vote, not politicians’ character. A concerning example of this was in the 2019 UK General Election where Prime Minister Boris Johnson handily beat Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, even though Corbyn’s trustworthiness, according to some polls, was 30 percentage points higher. In the aftermath of Brexit, Corbyn’s pro-EU stance was simply a bad read of the public mood and too much to bear for many swing voters, causing them to support Johnson, who was determined to see Brexit through. It did not matter whether voters believed Johnson was truthful. They only cared who was for Brexit, which happened to be Johnson, who went on to win the election. Voters put too much stake into their own political opinions for peripheral factors like trust to influence their vote at all in these cases, leading governments who might not be seen as trustworthy to continue to govern due to essentially blind support from the people.
Regardless of increased political polarisation, or attempts to stifle dissent, it should be agreed that losing trust is not a good thing to happen to any government. Electoral losses, the most direct way for citizens’ displeasure to be heard, are still incurred for most governments and even though Trump only lost 42000 or so votes, he still lost. The ultimate punishment for politicians – losing power, while not the defining factor to whether a government is a failure or not, is still significant.