Dr Hannah Bunting, TrustGov Research Project

Political trust is the level of confidence and faith we have both in those who govern our societies and the institutions that facilitate governance. Developments in a nation’s trust can point to warning signs for how politics is changing, and in many countries it has reached an all time low. Major global players suffer a crisis of trust: as conspiratorial thinking and misinformation spread in the population, while indicators of democratic backsliding occur throughout the governance system, political tensions rise. These events pose important questions about how we can understand trust, whether there is an optimal level of trust and, crucially, how it can be improved. The newly-released award-winning documentary and series of shorts by Silverfish Films and TrustGov at the University of Southampton provides just this exploration. It is an informative and challenging resource that piques useful debate.

Combining filmmaking and academic research is not particularly common in the political sciences. However the production of a film was built into the ESRC-funded TrustGov project to ensure greater engagement with those affected by the research topic. Trust may be a tricky concept to measure, yet each person will have an idea (with varying levels of certainty) of their trust in politics. Moreover, a documentary provides the opportunity to interview elites, experts and ordinary citizens, and to represent a broad portfolio of ideas and evidence, while allowing different perspectives to be heard. The collaboration creates a forum for heterogeneity of ideas, displayed in a way that is interesting and accessible for all viewers. Almost everybody will see themselves at some point in the film.

The documentary takes a global perspective of political trust yet focuses on three key case studies: the United Kingdom, the United States and Denmark. The US is among states with the lowest trust levels and experiences domestic political hostility. In the UK, Brexit and other structural changes see the population express only moderate levels of trust, whereas in Denmark trust is high. The film visits each of these countries, interviewing both experts and those with first hand experience of the crises, to provide insight into how each case operates.

Trust is often thought of as a positive aspiration – we want people to trust the government. However, the TrustGov project identifies that the states with the highest level of political trust are also the most authoritarian. Is trust, therefore, really the ideal? Drawing on research, the film offers that it is best to think of a family of trust, whereby distrust is actively harmful but mistrust describes critical citizens that make judgements based on information; evaluating governments based on circumstances is better than blindly trusting or distrusting.

World-leading scholars, such as Professors Helene Landmore, Marc Hetherington and TrustGov’s Professors Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker, discuss how the term ‘crisis’ almost doesn’t fit with what has happened to trust. While crises are a temporary disruption, political trust has been steadily declining. Changes in how societies are structured, both geographically and in terms of identity, compound declining social trust – that is, whether you think ‘most people can be trusted’ – which then feeds into our political lives. In tandem, rising inequality and globalisation increase the separation between elites and the people. The documentary talks to those with experience of the real-world consequences of these changes and provides an understanding for their development. In Denmark, it shows how such conditions have been avoided, highlighting however that maintaining higher levels of trust is not without its own problems.

As Dr Jen Gaskell tells the viewer, it is a lot easier to break trust than to build it. Yet the film ends by deliberating solutions to the trust crisis. By understanding how harmful trust levels are sustained and fuelled, we can begin to address the issues covered in the documentary. We might need to revisit our social and political norms, regulate our systems of information, or rely on the next generation to do politics differently. The film invites you to think about how we can create critical, engaged citizens that generate a constructive level of mistrust.

The film is applicable to all audiences. In education, it might be useful for under 16s who are learning the foundations of democracy, or those in further and higher education who are interrogating today’s political circumstances. The general public might be interested in contextualising their position on government and politicians. Likewise, academics across disciplines may find it beneficial to get a flavour of the current scholarship on political trust. In any case, whether a student, a layperson or an expert, The Trust Crisis inspires a conversation we should all be having.