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While populists seek to exploit distrust, more people are demanding new forms of democracy. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of credible local authority more proximate to the citizenry. It has also illustrated the potentially deadly impacts of false information, and of misusing civic-participation tools to undercut protective health measures. Traditional social cohesion has been shattered in many parts of the world, and the classic political model of representative democracy seems to have reached its limits. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, an online survey conducted in dozens of countries, institutions including government, NGOs, businesses, and the media all declined in terms of enjoying public trust - and business had become more trusted than government in 18 of 27 countries. The major factors driving this breakdown include the handling of the pandemic, related economic crises, and political instability. Growing inequality around the world and the emergence of a large middle class in the Global South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) with mounting consumer and lifestyle expectations have added further stress on social cohesion. All of this has contributed to a breakdown of trust in political systems and politicians, in Western democracies and authoritarian regimes alike. There are many solutions that have been proposed to try to help address these crises. In a growing number of places populist movements have been ascendant, and have positioned themselves as alternatives to what they refer to as the “establishment,” even if in many cases these movements have originated among the economic and social elite within their respective countries. The Guardian reported in 2018 that the number of Europeans ruled by a government with at least one populist in its cabinet had increased from 12.5 million to 170 million during the previous two decades. An alternative, less cynical approach to the breakdown of trust involves taking innovative approaches to decision-making, and in many places people would welcome more direct democracy in the form of initiatives and referendums. Yet another approach involves focusing on a so-called “deliberative turn” in democracy, where greater participation per se is not viewed as the sole means to solve problems - and instead, an emphasis is placed on authentic deliberation specifically among the people who are most affected by particular political decisions.

A Breakdown in Trust


Shifts in Power