Democracies everywhere are experiencing a trust crisis.
Polling by the global public relations firm Edelman shows that from 2021 to 2023 alone, public trust in government fell by 12 percentage points to 47 percent in Germany; by 16 points to 34 percent in South Korea; and by ten points to 37 percent in the United Kingdom.
As people’s trust in governments erodes, so too does their faith in democracy. If people don’t believe in their government, why would they believe in that government’s ruling principles?
Yet at the same time, people continue to trust the private sector. From 2019 to 2020, Edelman found that business was tied for the most publicly trusted institution across 27 of the world’s wealthiest countries, most of which are democracies. In 2021, business became the only institution with positive ratings for trust; majorities of people distrusted non-profits, the government, and the media; business was the only institution that majorities considered both ethical and competent.
Commentators regularly criticize financial firms and tech companies alike, lamenting the private sector’s supposed harm to democracy and castigating capitalism’s failure to deliver. But the general public clearly disagrees. In 2022, they again gave business top marks for ethics and competence, and in 2023 deemed the private sector the only trusted institution.
Like it or not, people trust Walmart more than they trust the U.S. Congress. They trust Tim Cook more than they do Rishi Sunak.
That trust means that policymakers must see the private sector not as a cause of democracy’s problems, but rather a solution: They can capitalize on people’s trust in business and support for the private sector to rebuild lagging public trust in government—and strengthen democracy.
Why do people trust business, even if they are skeptical or even critical of capitalism?
They consider the private sector dynamic and productive, in contrast to rigid and ineffectual governments. Whereas SpaceX literally reaches for the stars or Apple creates the world of tomorrow, governments from Downing Street to the White House look as if they are stuck in the world of yesterday. The active private sector offers the promise of a better life, whereas tired governments remind people of what they’ve lost, and how cloudy their futures appear to be.
Rather than criticize business, politicians should learn to work with the private sector through principled and coordinated public-private partnerships based on shared goals.
Such partnerships can be hugely successful. In 1996, the Australian government and four private firms upgraded the Ballina Bypass highway seven months ahead of schedule and for $100 million less than estimated.
Public-private partnerships have also allowed Japan to maintain its world-class railways despite declining revenue. Germany in the early 2000s created several government bodies to connect the private sector and smaller municipalities with public-private partnership experts and offer them support mechanisms. That formula has produced successful cooperation on the construction of everything from administration buildings to sports facilities.
Perhaps the most successful public-private partnership in recent years is the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The Trump administration sped up the production of several vaccine candidates with $10 billion in government funding. Germany took a similar approach to funding Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. Washington then passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and CHIPS and Science Act, both of which earmark billions for what are essentially public-private partnerships.
Still, companies are not in the business of fixing societal problems. They are in the business of making money.
But if officials work with the private sector to harmonize these goals while maintaining government oversight, the result would be both better governance and a huge lift in public trust. That lift would be a shot in the arm for democracies, because despite gloomy headlines about lacking faith in democracy, people want to trust their governments. They believe in Britain or America or Japan even if they don’t believe in their democracies right now.
Some 84 percent of Americans say that the level of confidence they and their compatriots have in the federal government can be improved. In fact, from January to May 2020—when the COVID-19 pandemic truly took hold—several democracies saw huge increases in government trust: by 24 points in the United Kingdom, 20 points in Canada, 19 points in Germany, 13 points in France, and nine points in the United States. When people needed their governments, and their governments delivered, citizens learned to trust their leaders once again.
These numbers eventually fell back to Earth, primarily because national governments failed to control the pandemic, mismanaged their vaccine rollouts, or became embroiled in other scandals and problems. But what the era of COVID-19 should teach us is that trust in government can improve, and improve rapidly: Governments can earn back the trust of their people by delivering.
One hopes that in the coming years, governments will look to the private sector for a helping hand.
Charles Dunst (@CharlesDunst) is the author of Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman (Hodder & Stoughton), published on Feb. 2, 2023.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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Author: Charles Dunst