Why you should care
This OZY series explores how institutions are battling declining trust — and what’s replacing them.
Institutions are not getting it done. The rise of populists from the United States to Brazil to Europe shows a declining faith in politics as usual. Big tech companies have been exposed for playing fast and loose with our data. The Roman Catholic Church swept pedophiles under the rug. Industries from Hollywood to the Nobel Prize committee have been rocked by mistreatment of women in the #MeToo era. Traditional media is taking it on the chin, and new media — except for OZY, of course — tends to drive people deeper into their warring tribes.
Amid all this wreckage, OZY asked this question: In whom do we trust anymore? Our exclusive series explores how traditional institutions are trying to restore trust, the new players who are swiping it away, the unlikely areas where trust thrives and some lessons from history about where the trust came from in the first place.
Across Central and Eastern Europe, satirical parties and comedian candidates are gaining ground, vying for power or grabbing it, fueled by voters’ deep dissatisfaction with mainstream parties. In Ukraine, a popular comedian called Volodymyr Zelensky surged to the lead in polls with 21 percent support, in front of second-placed political veteran Yulia Tymoshenko, ahead of the March 2019 presidential elections. On television, Zelensky is already president — on his show, he plays a humble history teacher who is elected president after one of his political rants against traditional parties goes viral. In Italy, the Five Star Movement (M5S) founded by comedian Beppe Grillo rose to power after 2018’s general elections. It had started off as a joke-protest movement with what it called a Vaffanculo Day (F*ck Off Day) in 2007. And in Hungary, the Two-Tailed Dog Party has built thousands of followers by simply mocking those in power.
Father Ronald Lemmert of New York was booted from his parish in the mid-1990s for raising concerns that a priest was abusing children. He was right, and abuse scandals have rocked the church for going on two decades. While plenty of reformers have emerged from outside the church and within the pews, Lemmert stands out as one of the most vocal men of the cloth to demand accountability. Now he is a co-founder and leader of the Catholic Whistleblowers, a network of nearly a dozen advocates (mostly current and former clergy members) that works to bring abusers to justice and pass laws to better protect victims.
Mikaela Blomqvist is not part of the Swedish literati and doesn’t care much about being disliked — the nature of a literary critic. But the stodgy Nobel Foundation has turned to her, along with another 27-year-old critic, to restore trust after a #MeToo scandal caused several academy members to resign and led to there being no Nobel Prize in Literature awarded in 2018. By adding outside judges who are decades younger, the foundation hopes to rebut criticism that its laureates are too male and too mainstream.
While Amazon may be viewed skeptically by experts, politicians and comedians, it’s won over the most important constituency of all — the American public. That’s according to a recent poll from Georgetown University: Not only was Amazon ranked the second-most trusted of 20 institutions in the sample of 5,400 Americans, but it was one of the few to receive near-total bipartisan acclaim.
Donald Trump is trusted by 78 percent of Filipinos — a higher proportion than from any other country — according to a Pew Research poll of 25 nations. Filipinos trust America’s president more than Americans do. Only 55 percent of Americans this year said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust and confidence in their leaders, according to Gallup. And that’s at a 10-year high. Meanwhile, 69 percent of Israelis, 28 percent of Britons and only 9 percent of French people had confidence in the U.S. president.
This month, Swiss voters will be asked whether they support a proposal to limit urban sprawl and promote environmentally sustainable housing. It will be the first of four times they will be called to the polls this year. The direct say in the running of the country is why Switzerland has the highest trust in its politicians and government in the world, according to two separate studies, by OECD and the European Values Study.
It sounds jarring to today’s ears: A nationally televised anchorman — that paragon of public trust and gravitas — telling viewers to smoke ’em if they’ve got ’em. The voice of authority was a Kansan named John Cameron Swayze, the host of NBC’s Camel News Caravan, which debuted on American television screens in 1949. Swayze would prove to be a news pioneer, a trailblazer in a seersucker blazer. And though we may cringe or chuckle at the Camel cigarette references adorning the nightly news, private sponsorship was essential to launching the anchorman and the broadcast journalism endeavor we know today.