THE Edelman Trust Barometer, which has been published every year for the last 14, has always provided an interesting insight into what we might call the "emotions" rather than "beliefs" of the nation.
The distinction is important: in my view "trust" is not a belief, but is an emotion – or rather, resembles an emotion in that trust has characteristics which are unique to emotions.
When we are in the grip of an emotion, which this country is – overwhelming, it relates to trauma – we tend to seek out facts which affirm the existence of that emotion and resist facts which tend to negate it.
In fact, no aspect of our lives is more important than emotion when it comes to the quality and meaning of our existence – emotions are what make life worth living, and for some, sometimes ending.
When it comes to assessing the various players in our democracy – government, media and business – this may go some way towards understanding what is behind such terms as "nothing has changed" or "they're all the same" or "they're all at it".
These days, however, important questions are also being asked about the nature of the relationship between trust and democracy – such as, whether declining trust in government, media and business, is necessarily bad for democracy. The Edelman findings, published recently, were presented in the negative – that declining trust was bad for democracy.
For example, Edelman Ireland managing director Mark Cahalane said: "This year's Irish findings are somewhat stark and perhaps we need to ask if society in Ireland really is broken."
We may ask but in my view the answer is that society is not broken, far from it. If anything, it can be argued that society has been fixed by the huge levels of distrust which exist. The 2014 Edelman findings for Ireland show government, at 21 per cent, down eleven points; media, at 37 per cent, down eight points; and business, at 41 per cent, down four points.
Trust in government, media and business has fallen to the pre-general election levels in 2011, and back to the level that existed at the time of the last Fianna Fail-led government when the Troika arrived.
Grim, you may think. Indeed, concern has been expressed with research that has shown precipitous declines in trust for political institutions and various authorities, not just in Ireland but throughout Western Europe and in the US.
Whether this is a problem or not depends, in part, on whether it has ever made much sense to place trust in political institutions or the media and business for that matter.
It might be instructive to take account of where Edelman found high levels of trust: those bastions of free democracies the United Arab Emirates (79 per cent) and China (79 per cent) came out top, followed by Singapore (73 per cent), Indonesia (72 per cent) and India (69 per cent).
So rather than a negative, then, the declining levels of trust here can be taken to be a consequence of more democracy, which has meant more oversight of and less trust in authorities.
Democratic mechanisms such as voting, freedoms of speech and association, and separations of power, which do not exists in the UAE or China, have enabled citizens here to challenge supposed relations of trust.
Of course, the fact that democracy requires such mechanisms to produce a decent political life – in the absence of less than complete trust – does not mean that democracy can do without trust.
But it can been argued that it has always made little sense to even speak of trust in the institutions of government. We may depend on government, or even be reassured by its predictability – but that should not mean we must trust government.
The lesson for government, media and business is that trust should be sought, identified, explained and encouraged where there is a chance it might exist; but this is, typically, not the case in distant relations, such as has become between individuals and government.
In that sense, then, the decline of trust in political institutions, and other authorities, should not be seen as a problem but rather a sign that citizens are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the conditions of trust.