Ipsos MORI Thinks

Distrust and tribalism in the US: The drivers of our age of uncertainty

CHRIS JACKSON Vice President, Ipsos US Public Affairs

MALLORY NEWALL Director, Ipsos US Public Affairs

People could be forgiven for thinking that much of the western world is in a state of dysfunction. Media is rife with references to failing governments, unscrupulous businesses, social protests, and global problems. Focusing on the United States highlights the challenges as the country struggles to deal with events ranging from the Great Recession, to Black Lives Matter, to the election of Donald Trump. At Ipsos, we call this moment ‘Our Age of Uncertainty’, based on a depth of research with the public in various countries around the world. Our analysis indicates that this era of instability is characterised by the long-term chronic decline in public confidence in institutions and the increasing power of more tribal loyalties.

Long-term decline in trust

Trust did not start decaying in the US yesterday, nor has this decline impacted just one area of society. The current low levels of trust and confidence – in government, business, the media, other institutions, and each other, as discussed elsewhere in this report – began falling five decades ago and have remained at historically low levels for the last decade. Trust has fallen but is not in constant freefall. As an example, according to the Pew Research Center, the average proportion of Americans who trust the government in Washington always or most of the time has stayed within the 17-21% range since 2011.

While academics have established there is a decline in public trust, they have not reached a consensus as to the cause. Suggested causes include a whole range of demographic, social, cultural, and political changes. Many of these are long-term issues, such as different generational values, change in the ethnic makeup of America, immigration, a fractured information landscape, economic inequality, changing power structures (as discussed in Moses Naim’s ‘The End of Power’) and so on. All these lead to opportunities for anti-system political actors such as Donald Trump or Bernie Saunders, the growth of ‘alternative facts’, and an associated driver of this age of uncertainty: growing tribalism in a post-global world.

Trust as the immune system

In a healthy society with robust levels of trust, people assume that others will hold up their ends of the social contract, are less likely to listen to divisive claims, and are more likely to allow space for change. Solving difficult, complex problems in society requires robust trust between the governed and the governing, where the former are willing to give up something now in exchange for the promise of a benefit later. At this moment (and arguably since the mid-2000s), most Americans do not trust political elites to honour their promises.

One consequence of the shortage of trust in elites is that people turn to other groups of people they have more in common with, sometimes termed ’alternative’ authorities. These ’tribal’ alternatives can vary widely and are largely social constructions emerging from shared histories or shared goals.

Psychology of tribalism

This new tribalism is powerful because it builds on how our brains are wired. People do not actually make carefully reasoned political decisions. (See for example Jonathan Haidt’s work, or the concept of ’hot cognition’, defined here as a person coming to a summary judgment without considering alternative information.
Hot cognition occurs when strong emotive responses to stimuli short-circuit reasoned decision-making61). The reality is that people look for shortcuts in decision-making in politics, as in their consumer decisions. Politics and governance are highly complicated and 
abstract. Most people do not need to, or want to, spend a great deal of time thinking about it to be successful in their day-to-day life. Therefore, rather than expend the rather significant mental energy to become experts on all facets of governance, most people look for signifiers to make quick decisions. One of the most frequently used cues is tribal identity. Essentially, if a person identifies with a group of people strongly, they generally trust other members of that group, and a representative of that group who had a clear opinion would be trusted to represent all others.

The power of tribalism can be seen in the rise of what we call differential credibility, where credibility or legitimacy is derived from association with one’s tribal colours or ‘cues’. Recently, we ran an experiment at Ipsos which reinforces this point. In it, we asked respondents if they supported or opposed the 1975 Public Affairs Act. This bill is fictitious. The findings are striking and illustrate the impact of trust and partisanship on communications. Independent of the merits, Republicans are much more likely to support the bill if it was linked to Trump, and Democrats the same if associated with Clinton. Such cues of source credibility are key, and they litter our political landscape. Merit or fact is less important than packaging.

The weaponisation of tribalism

The loss of popular trust and the tribalisation of loyalties makes society more susceptible to fear, division and instability. Political and media entrepreneurs (defined as people using strongly political rhetoric for personal advancement) have seized on these low levels of trust to promote themselves by weaponising tribalism. Many prominent figures understand that fear and anger are quick ways to mobilise people into action and build cohesive bases of support. Some have focused on stoking fear and anger towards the ‘other’ in societies. In the United States, the main tribal dividing line has become partisan identification with a subtext of race or ethnicity. This deployment of tribalism has a clear example in the election of Donald Trump, his effective priming of his Republican base, and ongoing trolling of his Democratic opponents (and even further afield, including the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, which has been echoed in the UK).

We should make clear the difference between partisanship and this more caustic form of tribalism. Partisanship is not in itself a bad thing. Taking a side or voicing an identity is a vital part of exercising democracy. What has changed in recent years is the rise of a hostile and tribalised negative partisanship, and even hatred of the ‘other side’. Over the past two decades, the number of Americans voicing an allegiance to the Democratic or Republican party is mostly unchanged. However, over the same time period, the percentage of people who express strong antipathy towards people from the other party has more than doubled. This hostility is the natural outcome of the countless hours of political entrepreneurs attacking opponents in personal and moralistic language. People on the other side are increasingly seen as not just having differing beliefs, but as being fundamentally morally wrong. In an environment where your opponents are ‘evil’, how does reasoned debate or compromise happen? There are also some signs of this happening in other countries. For instance, in Britain we have seen the same pattern with Brexit going from an issue that concerned fewer than one in ten people in 2015 to the defining line of British politics. It has brought together different sociocultural trends to polarise British politics into Leavers versus Remainers with opponents called ‘mutineers’, ‘traitors’, and worse.

The risk is that societies with low levels of trust and strong negative partisanship are caught in a negative feedback cycle. These two social forces reinforce each other and make it increasingly difficult to either build trust or a more positive form of tribal identity.

What this means for societies

Not all societies are equally affected by our current divisions. However, this dynamic of weak institutional trust, mass media-driven divisive rhetoric, and tribalisation of societies is a risk everywhere. We must not exaggerate divisions. However, the new online, self-created echo chambers people can now inhabit, where partisan messaging circulates far faster than ever before, create new challenges. It means antagonistic tribal identities continually reinforce themselves, and anyone trying to bridge divides can find it even harder to break through. Countries that still have robust levels of institutional trust should safeguard that through good governance and transparent corporate social responsibility. Countries trapped in the negative feedback cycle have a tougher road. The path out for them is much harder to see.

These levels of disjunction will require generational change or a major external shock to break down. They are unlikely to be resolved as a result of a single election or change in government. The challenge for everyone interested in promoting healthy societies will be plotting a course through this instability back towards a healthy world. This path will centre on building and reinforcing trust and positive relationships between groups and institutions. Understanding how we got here is the first step.

Trust: The Truth?

We decided to write this report because we wanted to test if the prevailing narrative matched the data. The ‘truth about trust’ is that trust is complex, and takes many forms (many of these forms are not in crisis or decline). Without some degree of trust society simply would not function…