Poll highlights public’s lack of trust in politicians

Analysis: Findings of Ipsos MRBI survey may help explain rise of populism and nativism

Just 21 per cent of the Irish public say they trust politicians, the lowest ranked of all professions measured in the 2017 Ipsos MRBI Trust In The Professions Survey.

So what? We have known for a long time that politicians come bottom of the trust pile. This deficit of confidence is nothing new (it precedes the financial crisis, bank bailouts, health and housing crises) and is not unique to the State (in the UK politicians score even lower at 15 per cent).

Trust in politics and politicians matters because a lack of trust may be one of the two factors driving the international surge in populist politics, more specifically the growth in support for strongly right-wing parties or policies.

At least this is the view of Cliff Young, chief executive of Ipsos North America and a leading political analyst in the US. His views were given alongside those of other political analysts from the UK, Italy, France, South Africa and Canada at an event in London last week, organised by the UK polling firm Ipsos Mori to debate the rise of populist politics in developed nations.

The other driver of populism, according to Young’s analysis, is nativism. He described nativism as the level of immigration which the native population is comfortable with, making the point that almost everyone in a country agrees with the idea of having some border controls in place and only differs on how restricted access should be.

Nativism, in other words, is a spectrum along which all citizens have a position, even the “liberal metropolitan elite”.

From a political strategy perspective, exploiting nativism risks waking a sleeping, ugly beast. Denying nativism, as we have seen in the US, is also not without risk. If only one party is talking to a population’s nativist concerns, even voters who are not in any way extreme on the nativist spectrum may gravitate towards the extreme view if it is the only one being expressed.

Arguably there is a link between nativism and economic progress. During the same debate, UK pollster Ben Page made the point that the current generation of UK voters feels worse off than the previous generation, when objectively they are not. The explanation lies in the belief among UK voters (and probably voters in the US and the rest of Europe too) that progress was a birth right. Not so. Real incomes have stagnated, unless you are one of the elites.

When a rising tide is lifting all boats, populations are more open to immigration, but when voters feel as if they are standing still while the rest of the world is catching up, voters will reposition themselves along the nativist spectrum in an attempt, vain or otherwise, to protect what they have.

Twin perils

Thus far, the State has avoided the twin perils of mistrust and nativism, not because we trust politicians – because we clearly do not – but because nativism is not an issue for voters here. Immigration hardly features on the list of issues concerning Irish voters, while Ipsos Mori polls put immigration second on the UK issues list, ahead of health, unemployment and poverty.

It is intriguing to international research colleagues that immigration does not feature on the political agenda in Ireland. The level of immigration into the State between 1991 and 2011 was unprecedented in our history, with the non-Irish born population exploding from 7 per cent to 17 per cent during this period, yet when the economy collapsed there was no suggestion that immigration played a role in our downfall or that fewer immigrants would solve the problem.

It is of enormous credit to the public, politicians and the media that immigration was not scapegoated for our difficulties.

Our own history of emigration and a broadly positive view of globalisation has helped keep nativism off the agenda. Europe and Europeans have been good to us.

Americans want to make America great again. UK, French and Italian voters may also feel their best days are behind them. Thankfully Ireland is safe from nostalgia turning into nativism: this generation does not imagine the past so fondly.

We were never an empire or a world power. In the global race, we are the ones doing the catching up.

What we cannot be is complacent. Much is being said but little is known about the role of fake news in the recent US election. Having a few news organisations control the political agenda is rightly a concern, but every citizen trawling the internet for news stories that fit with their world view without the filter of professional journalism being applied is equally concerning.

Perhaps in the absence of a nativist surge, we Irish should be more concerned about the trend towards nativism – voters making choices without any real or reliable information and without the inclination to discriminate between sources of information.

Trust in journalists stands at just 42 per cent in 2017. Hardly an overwhelming vote of confidence. The good news is that this rating has held broadly steady in recent times. It is essential that trust in journalists is at the very least maintained.

And speaking of real and reliable information, the huge drop in the public’s trust of pollsters (from 60 per cent to 46 per cent) in this latest survey is worrying. Arguably, when pollsters get it right, polls are the furthest thing from fake news imaginable. Another one to watch.

*Damian Loscher is the managing director of Ipsos MRBI