Distrust and Polarization in Latin America

What distinguishes the current polarization? Why is it the fashionable term to describe the Latin American and global political situation? Is it structural or temporary? But, above all, what effects does it have on people’s daily lives?

It is no secret that the “institutions of representative democracy” are in crisis. Many have analyzed their causes and proposed explanations as to why presidents, Congresses, police, courts of justice and political parties are in the last places regarding trust among citizens.

The global communications agency Edelman Trust Barometer 2023 distinguishes four trends leading to polarization: economic concerns, institutional imbalance, class division and the struggle for truth.

In terms of the economy, the study indicated that 93% of those surveyed consider that the main concern is losing their job. Although the study focused on Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, the results can be extrapolated to the rest of the region. Meanwhile, the report of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Labor Outlook 2022, indicated that currently one out of every two workers in the region is informal.

As for institutional imbalance, more than half of those surveyed consider government institutions to be a source of false and misleading information. Without going deeper into the meaning of “distrust”, this data reveals that, more than a crisis of representation, democracy is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy. The difference is not trivial: the first would be resolved, among other aspects, with a reform of the modalities of participation, but the second implies a deterioration of the system.

In democracy, we entrust (through the vote) to others the task of representing, defending and promoting our interests and needs. A crisis of legitimacy implies asking ourselves: if we lose confidence in those representatives, is it still necessary to vote to elect them?

Evidently, voting is still necessary, but if the crisis of representative democracy is a symptom of a deeper illness, it is no coincidence that, as other measurements have shown, Latin Americans are increasingly willing to give up voting in exchange for material well-being and personal security.

Thus, it is striking that the media occupy the second place of distrust among respondents and that journalists are in the penultimate place. In light of these results, we should ask ourselves why people do not feel identified with or are inclined to trust them. Could it be that, despite the proliferation of fake news on social networks, these reflect emotions absent in those media?

There is much to be done to restore confidence in job retention, governments and the media. It is essential to understand the impact of distrust on the day-to-day lives of Latin Americans.

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2023, nearly half of respondents distrust the citizens of their country and the people in their community. For 65% of respondents, the most serious effect of distrust is violence in the streets. Education, on the other hand, does not seem to be the solution, as almost three out of four think that lack of civility and mutual respect is the most serious problem.

Regarding coexistence between people with opposing ideas, the survey indicates that only three out of ten would help another with whom they disagree and only two out of ten would be willing to live in the same neighborhood. But perhaps the most troubling finding is that 60% of those polled agree with the statement: “Our country is more divided today than ever before”.

When analyzing the phenomenon of polarization, we usually do so based on the words and actions of those who govern and the way in which they divide citizens, a phenomenon that I would call “vertical polarization”. However, we should not forget its other side: “horizontal polarization”. This has distrust as its emotional basis and through it we look at the other person. Nevertheless, that other is not the foreigner, the enemy army or the offender of the homeland: the other is our neighbor, our co-worker, the person who travels next to us on public transportation.

If the trend continues, democracy will eventually collapse, not because of an external force, but because of distrust of ourselves as a society.

*Translated from Spanish by Micaela Machado Rodrigues

Our Newsletter