A Mistrustful Society?

The Lack of Trust in Government Institutions in the Czech Republic

in The International Journal of Social Quality
Author:
Nicole Horáková University of Ostrava, Czech Republic nicole.horakova@osu.cz

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Abstract

The level of trust in politicians also in government institutions is taken as an indicator of the state of society in general. Various studies have shown that the population of the Central Eastern European countries, and especially the citizens of the Czech Republic, lack trust in state institutions and democratic structures. The trust of the Czech population in government institutions is, compared to other (Western) European countries, at a relatively low level. This article aims to discuss different factors that are currently influencing this lack of trust: the historical, cultural, and institutional. The empirical data for this article is based on the European Values Study and Czech surveys of public opinion concerning trust in government institutions.

The glue that hold all relationships together—including the relationship between the leader and the led—is trust, and trust is based on integrity.

—Brian Tracy

Trust is an important element at the micro- and macro-level of society: a love affair without trust is just as unimaginable as an employment relationship or good cooperation between the population and state institutions. Building trust can take years, but trust can be destroyed in seconds by lying or by dishonest behavior. Generally speaking, trust is an important component of the glue that holds society together: Trust can be seen as one of the indicators by which one can measure social cohesion in society; other indicators of social cohesion are public safety, intergenerational solidarity, social status and economic cohesion, social capital, networks, and altruism (Beck et al. 2001; Berman and Phillips 2012). The term “social cohesion” has a long tradition in the social sciences on the theoretical and empirical level (see Berman and Phillips 2012) so that there are numerous different approaches that cannot be discussed here. As Wolfgang Beck and colleagues (2001) show, social cohesion with all its facets is an integral part of the new quadrant of social quality alongside socioeconomic security, inclusion, and equal opportunities in institutions as well as empowerment, competence, and capabilities. If we understand social cohesion as a part of social quality and trust as one of the indicators of social cohesion, then dealing with trust is also an important part of the complex structure of social quality. On the one hand, for some trust depends on how the population evaluates the performance of state institutions (Medgyesi and Boda 2019). This makes trust an important indicator for assessing the legitimacy of state institutions and their work. On the other hand, trust also correlates with certain behavioral patterns, for example voting for populist parties. A loss of confidence thus shows direct political effects, which strengthens the policy relevance of studying institutional trust.

Eric Uslaner describes trust as “the chicken soup of social life” (2002: 1) that brings to individuals in society “all sorts of good things, from a willingness to get involved in our communities to a higher rate of economic growth and, ultimately, to satisfaction with government performance” (2002: 1). Being a member of a trusting society influences the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels of societal life: it has an impact on personal relationships, the willingness to get involved in society, the satisfaction with the work of state institutions, and, in short, the overall quality of daily life.

At the European level, trust in the national, but also supranational, institutions and trust in the other member nations of the European Union is of particular importance for the European unification project. The core of the supranational idea of community is that the citizens of different nations feel positive about each other and that they develop special solidarity with other member nations, for example by opening their welfare systems for other EU citizens and thereby enabling cross-border mobility. And finally, the individual member states transfer parts of their decision-making authority to European bodies, a move that also entails the risk that decisions will be made that conflict with national interests (Immerfall et al. 2010). Since trust is not a static value but can be influenced by different factors and is therefore subject to change, Stefan Immerfall and colleagues (2010) show that, for example, Poland's confidence in the other postsocialist states such as the Czech Republic and Hungary has increased. However, they state that “EU membership seems to do surprisingly little for transnational trust … The flow of transnational sympathy does not follow the increasing circulation of goods, people, services and capital which, after all, is the cornerstone of the European integration.” (Immerfall et al. 2010: 35). During the financial crisis of 2006 to 2011, a loss of confidence in state institutions could be seen in all EU countries, but with different degrees of expression in the individual countries. No East–West scheme can be identified here; rather, the falling confidence is related to how badly the country was affected by the financial crisis and how well the government was able to manage it. The loss of confidence did not last long, and in the postcrisis period confidence in the performance of state institutions rose again, even in those states that were particularly hard hit by the crisis. The increase in trust is closely linked to social cohesion, the smooth running of processes in state institutions, and economic growth, which differed in the individual EU countries (Medgyesi and Boda 2019). The Czech Republic was an exception: despite economic growth and falling unemployment figures in the postcrisis period, trust in state institutions continued to decline.

The State of Trust and Mistrust in CEE Countries: A Brief Overview

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain more than thirty years ago and the accession of the first postsocialist countries to the European Union in 2004, the transformation processes have progressed inexorably but are far from over. The liberal democracies in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) are still a “work in progress.” However, the progress made in the transformation process, and its acceptance among the population in the individual CEE countries, are heterogeneous. A study by the Slovak think tank Globsec from March 2020 among ten countries1 in the CCE region shows that only in five countries more than 50 percent of the respondents would choose a liberal democracy with regular elections and a multiparty system over an autocratic leader. Austria (92 percent) and Hungary (81 percent) have the highest approval rates. In Slovakia, only 49 percent of respondents were in favor of liberal democracy; 38 percent would prefer a strong leader. In Bulgaria, only 35 percent of those questioned voted for liberal democracy, while 48 percent would like to have authoritarian leadership. Satisfaction with the current government system is less than 50 percent in nearly all countries—except for Austria. Besides, all respondents from the CEE countries showed strong mistrust in political parties (72 percent) and other state institutions (53 percent on average). Satisfaction with the current government system is less than 50 percent in nearly all countries. The results from Austria occupy a special position in the Globsec study, since Austrians have a much greater confidence in their political parties, institutions, and the political system in general than do their CEE neighbors. Interesting is the fact that in all CEE countries, including Austria, more than 75 percent of all respondents believe that a certain group in society is preferred to others (Globsec 2020). This result also coincides with the argument by Gergő Medve-Bálint and Zsolt Boda (2014) that egalitarian tendencies predominate in societies in the CEE region and that socioeconomic inequality is felt to be particularly strong there.

The starting point for the Czech Republic is special, inasmuch as socioeconomic inequality—that is, the difference between the salaries of the richest and poorest sections of the population—has been at the same level since 2005 and is still below the EU average. At the same time, the economy performed well prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the unemployment rate, even among unskilled workers, was low. The Globsec (2020) survey shows for the Czech Republic a “strong and enrooted belief in democratic principles and high socio-economic benefits and stability are reflected in a positive ranking in the Satisfaction with the System of Governance Index.” But, among other things, numerous corruption scandals as well as long-term structural problems are reflected in the distrust that Czechs have for their political parties, political institutions, and leading political representatives.

In this article, I am going to discuss further several factors that influence lack of trust against a historical, cultural, and institutional background. The empirical data for this article is based on the European Values Study and Czech surveys of public opinion concerning trust in government institutions. At the beginning, I will give a brief overview of the classical and modern theories of trust from a sociological perspective, and then move on to define the phenomenon. The next section of the text I will devote to the question of how trust and mistrust in CEE countries can be explained from a cultural and historical perspective. In the main part of the article I will discuss the (mis-)trust of the Czech population in supranational institutions (here the European Union) and national institutions using the example of Parliament and the office of the president. Finally, in the final section I will offer another point of view to explain the decline of trust in the political institutions in the Czech Republic. This could help explain why the Czech Republic has been affected so significantly by a massive loss of confidence in state and government institutions.

What Is Trust?

Trust can be understood as a societal construct that should explain how cohesion in societies arises on an interpersonal level but also on the level between individuals and institutions. A generally valid definition of trust as a component of social interaction has not been established yet; it depends, on the one hand, on the theoretical point of view and, on the other, on the discipline that examines trust (Meyer and Ward 2009).

For many classical sociologists such as Ferdinand Tönnies, Georg Simmel, or Max Weber, the shift from traditional society to modern society was the starting point for their investigations. The central question of their considerations was how society is even possible in a world in which changing values, norms, and beliefs are reflected in interpersonal interaction. Within this view, it is not sociality or the effect of societal changes on social cohesion that are decisive, but rather the general conditions for the societal order as the basis of society on an abstract and ideal-typifying level. Tönnies (2017), for example, describes the changing context in his concept of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (community and society): in his view, community stands for a premodern society, the cohesion of which is defined by personal relationships based on trust, shared experiences, and values. The increasing rationalization and instrumentalization of interpersonal relationships in modern society also leads to a change in trust as Barbara Misztal assumes:

In community, trust is based on a person's personality and his or her behavior as a member of the community. … Trust in this situation is seen as a by-product of familiarity and friendship, both of which imply that those involved have some knowledge of each other and a degree of respect for the other's welfare. In Gesellschaft [sic!], confidence becomes highly impersonalized and is based on reputation. This type of impersonal trust is the result of increased economic cooperation and growing professionalization. (Misztal 1996: 40).

Trust in experts’ opinions is one result of these societal changes. Georg Simmel (1971) also wanted to grasp the essence of modernity and, in his analyses, created a complex and differentiated picture of modern man and his social relationships. It is precisely this complexity of the representation of modernism that is also evident in Simmel's conception of trust, which highlights different aspects: Simmel was one of the first sociologists to address the ambivalence of modern society. As knowledge increases, there is greater uncertainty; more individuality in society demands on the same time more trust in (business) partners, institutions, social relationships or laws (Misztal 1996). This ambivalence can also be found in Simmel's 1908 essay “The Stranger,” in which he characterizes the foreigner as “near and far at the same time” (Simmel 1971: 148), that is, as a person who is trusted because he stands outside of social structures and as a person who is suspicious because he does not belong to the community. For Max Weber ([1922] 2012), the transition from personalized to nonpersonalized trust was an important prerequisite for the success of capitalism, which went hand in hand with institutionalization and bureaucratization. Misztal considers Weber's contribution to be essential in putting “forward the question of complexity, discontinuity and transformation of trust relationships” (1996: 59).

Modern Concepts of Trust

The concepts and theories of classical sociologists served as the basis for the further development of the concept of trust in modern times. Niklas Luhmann was the first to present a complex, theoretical concept of trust, in which he analyzed the function of trust in society. For Luhmann “trust, in the broadest sense of confidence in one's expectations, is a basic fact in social life” (1979: 4). Luhmann starts from the assumption that the world has become more complex and that the individual cannot always assess the consequences of their actions and therefore has to take a certain risk. When rationalizing risk-taking, the individual has to have a certain amount of trust in the decisions of others in order to accept and implement them. The function of trust in Luhmann's theory is to reduce “social complexity by going beyond available information and generalizing expectations of behavior in that it replaces missing information with an internally guaranteed security” (Misztal 1996: 73). Anthony Giddens (1990) points out the fundamental changes in societal relations that took place from premodern to modern culture, which form the framework for the concepts of trust and risk. While the environment for trust in premodern societies is—according to Giddens—mainly based on kinship, local communities, and religious and traditional practices, the relationships of trust in modern societies are characterized by disembedded abstract systems. The shift from kinship relations to interpersonal relationships in modern societies also affects the attitude toward trust: “Relationships are ties based upon trust, where trust is not pre-given but worked upon” (Giddens 1990: 121). This demands a high degree of self-organization and reflexivity from the individual. Misztal sees an important contribution in Gidden's approach in establishing “mutual links between societal changes and individual attitudes, thereby successfully combining micro- and macro-levels of analysis” (1996: 94). The tendency to interpret social cohesion and the associated trust not only on the basis of societal consensus is shown in the “mixed model of social cohesion” (see Mann 1982). As mentioned above, the concept of social quality considers social cohesion as one of its important elements. The aim of the approach is by operationalization “to assist in analyzing major societal trends, contradictions and challenges from the perspective of everyday life [ … and] provide instruments with which to assess the impact of public policies” (Herrmann et al. 2012: 70).

A General Definition of the Phenomenon of Trust?

The different theoretical approaches show that the concept of trust is a complex phenomenon with divergent issues and explanations. Raising the question of a general definition, the broadest characterization is given by Bernard Barber, who says that that trust is the “expectation of the persistence and fulfillment of the natural and the moral orders” (cited in Yamagishi 2011: 22). This very general definition can be somewhat streamlined. Trustworthiness can be divided into expectations of natural (e.g. the sun rises in the morning) and moral order. The moral trust system consists in the expectation of the technically competent role performance (e.g., the surgeon performs the planned routine operation well) and in the expectation of the responsible intention on which the action is based. Further, Toshio Yamagishi distinguishes between trust and assurance of security, defining trust as “expectations of others’ (particular individuals or others in general) intentions based on one's judgment of their character traits or their feelings toward the trusting person” (2011: 31), and assurance is seen as the judgment that “there is no incentive for a partner to take advantage of you” (2011: 31). Trust itself Yamagishi divides into two categories: character-based and relational trust. The first category assumes that the trustworthy behavior of somebody is a general character trait. On the other hand, relational trust2 is based on the judgment that an individual will act trustworthy toward me regardless of how they behave toward others. Societies with low social uncertainty, reliable (family) ties, and collective characteristics tend to give the individual the feeling of social security at the expenses of having a low level of trust in “foreign” institutions. Yamagishi deduces from his study that the “collective society produces security but destroys trust” (2011: 12). He sees especially in former communist countries with a high level of social security in the past the rising of so-called “yakuza-type” relationships for providing the needed assurance of security. Another point of view is taken by the American political economist Francis Fukuyama in his book Trust: The Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity (1995), where he distinguishes between “high-trust” and “low-trust” societies. Fukuyama argues that trust is also culturally determined and that it plays an important role in the accumulation of economic prosperity; “high-trust” societies such as Germany, Japan, and the United States benefit from their lower transaction costs when it comes to the formation of large private business organizations on which prosperity and sustained growth depend. In contrast, low-trust or “familistic” societies such as South Korea, Italy, China, and France have higher transaction costs that impede the formation of such organizations. The primary focus of loyalty is in these societies directed to the family, rather than to the organizations outside it. In seeking to overcome these obstacles, low-trust societies rely on state intervention, which cannot replace the private organizations whose development is blocked. Fukuyama's book was praised, on the one hand, as containing an interesting thesis, but, on the other hand, it was strongly criticized for its lack of methodology and for the fact that it did not measure units of trust.

How to Explain Trust and Mistrust in Central and Eastern Europe?

A certain degree of trust is not only of great importance for social cohesion, but for the legitimation of a state and for its position within society it is important that the citizens trust the state institutions. To explain the origin of political trust, most studies distinguish two different concepts: cultural theory and institutional theory. Cultural theory understands institutional trust as an exogenous category, the origin of which lies outside the political system and institutions. It is determined by the historical and cultural roots of society. At the same time, early childhood socialization and later social status play a role how much the individual trusts state institutions. Other important factors are the shape of civil society, social capital, and voluntary associations.

Institutional theory is based on rational choice and endogenous motivation: institutional trust is generated “from above.” When individual state organs function well and meet the needs of the citizens, the latter also have confidence in the state. From this point of view, institutional trust is the result, not the cause, of institutional performance (Mishler and Rose 2001). In their study about trust in the CEE region, William Mishler and Richard Rose integrate cultural and institutional theory into a lifetime learning model in order to obtain a more complex explanatory picture: on the one hand, they see a low level of trust in political and state institutions, and on the other hand, they see little trust at the personal level: “Post-Communist societies are divided into large groups of individuals who fundamentally distrust both political institutions and their fellow citizens, or at least are deeply skeptical of them, and a smaller group who trust institutions and people” (2001: 55). The main problem seems to be that the lack of trust at the level of the individual in the CEE countries has an impact on the institutional trust level therein and vice versa.

Trust and Mistrust in the Czech Republic and the European Union

A look at the development of trust data in the Czech Republic shows that an explanation of the situation cannot be black or white, but that building trust and institutional trust is a very complex process that is determined by different factors (Čermák and Stachová 2010). Various studies have shown that the population of the CEE countries, and especially the citizens of the Czech Republic, lack trust in the state institutions and democratic structures. In many cases, this can be due to the process of “socialization into fear” (Marková 2004) that was used by the communist rulers: it was characteristic of them to strengthen the distrust within the population in order to support their own position. Fear, according to Ivana Marková, and distrust are linked to sociocognitive processes and actions. They lead to the loss of human dignity, passivity, non-engagement and a lack of communication (Marková 2004). In general, we can state that the trust of the Czech population in government institutions is, compared to other (Western-) European countries, at a relatively low level as the following survey from 2017 shows:

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Trust in the National Government (European Commission 2017).

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 10, 2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100206

In the Czech Republic, distrust in the national government is significantly higher than the EU average: 61 percent of the Czechs surveyed have no trust in their national government—the EU average is 56 percent. The other CEE countries—with the exception of Hungary—also have a rather skeptical attitude toward the state.

Czech Trust and Mistrust on a Supranational Level: Confidence in the European Union

If we look at the trust value level for the European Union among citizens of the Czech Republic, we can first of all generally state that up to 2012 it was over 50 percent. From 2012 onward, trust in the European Union begins to wane and distrust in this political institution grows or alternates with phases of increased trust.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Trust/Mistrust in the European Union (CVVM SOÚ ČR 2020a, with some modifications). Available at https://cvvmapp.soc.cas.cz/#question5.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 10, 2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100206

If we compare the levels of trust in the European Union between the generations, it becomes clear that those people between the ages of 20 and 29, in particular, have significantly more trust in it than the 60+ generation. In their case, distrust in the European Union as a political institution prevails, as Figure 3 shows.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Trust/Mistrust in the European Union by Age (CVVM SOÚ ČR 2020a, with some modifications). Available at https://cvvmapp.soc.cas.cz/#question5.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 10, 2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100206

Also, education level plays a significant role in trust in the European Union. People with a university degree have greater trust in the institution than people with a vocational certificate:

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Trust/Mistrust in the European Union by Education Level (CVVM SOÚ ČR 2020a, with some modifications).

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 10, 2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100206

However, all three analyses clearly show that the year 2012 represents a break: the trustworthiness of the European Union started falling significantly among all population groups and distrust started increasing. There are various explanations for the growing Euroscepticism: On the one hand, there are political events at the EU level, such as the euro debt crisis, which has dragged on for several years and which is causing lasting damage to confidence in the Union's financial strength, but there are also domestic political developments in the Czech Republic that are causing a loss of confidence in the institution. On the one hand, there is the indefinite, “lukewarm” attitude of the Czech political elite, who are rather skeptical of the European Union: a pro-European attitude is no longer at the forefront of the election manifesto for many parties. At the same time, according to the political scientist Lubomír Kopeček, domestic issues are given a European label: unpopular domestic political decisions are blamed on the European Union (Koreň 2018).

Trust in Political Institutions in the Czech Republic

For the Czech Republic, the surveys on trust in political institutions that are carried out on a regular basis show that the level of trust among citizens in individual institutions varies. While the president of the republic, who has been directly elected by the population since 2013, has a relatively high confidence level of mostly over 50 percent, the citizens distrust both the government and the democratically elected Parliament. On the other hand, they have a high level of trust in their local representatives at the municipal level. Pat Lyons explains these results with the fact “that high levels of public trust are given to institutions with low levels of formal power; a pattern that coincides with the relative visibility or salience of institutions, with the notable exception of the president” (2013: 348). Czech citizens seem to trust more in low salience political institutions: the low expectations in the work of these institutions lead to less disappointment and to more trustworthiness, while highly visible institutions such as the government seem to be less trustworthy because they do not meet the expectations of most of the citizens and its performance is not satisfactory in many ways. The following figure shows the measured trust into political institutions in 2019: almost 50 percent of those surveyed trust the president, but only 39 percent find the government trustworthy, and with regard to Parliament only 29 percent trust this political institution. Local representatives, on the other hand, enjoy a greater amount of trust.

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

Trust/Mistrust of the Population in State Institutions, June 2019 (CVVM SOÚ ČR 2020b, with modifications). Available at https://cvvm.soc.cas.cz/media/com_form2content/documents/c2/a4970/f9/pi190709.pdf.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 10, 2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100206

From a historical point of view, the trust in the person of the president can also be explained by the fact that in the past this office was exercised by personalities who were not only concerned with power but also with the intellectual and moral development of the Czechoslovak and later the Czech state: T. G. Masaryk and Václav Havel. Both were concerned not only with Czechoslovak/Czech statehood but also with a clearly formulated idea as the basis of the state. Or, as Erik Tabery (2017) writes, it is not enough just to live in a common area or to speak the same language, society must also share common basic values and protect them. However, these two exceptional presidents cannot hide the fact that there is no generally binding moral societal basis that is recognized and accepted by everyone—politicians and the population—so Tabery analyzes further. The mistrust in the political representatives and their institutions is also fed by often unrealistic ideas about what an “ideal policy” should look like. Out of disappointment, people then look for someone who can straighten things out and lead the state instead getting involved themselves—be it in political organizations or in nongovernmental organizations (Tabery 2017).

Other researchers emphasize the connection between the economic situation and citizens’ trust in their political and state institutions. Medve-Bálint and Boda (2014) conclude that in the CEE countries, households with lower incomes in particular show greater trust in institutions than households with a higher monthly income. They explain this with the tendency in the CEE states to offer their citizens more extensive sociocultural benefits in order to cushion the socioeconomic and sociocultural inequalities that emerged as a new phenomenon during the transformation. At the same time, they also point out that Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic are exceptions because in these countries relatively low inequality is associated with low trust in the statutory institutions. Klára Vlachová (2019) examined the changes in satisfaction with the way democracy works in the CEE countries between 2004 and 2014. She concluded that people in Central Europe are still less satisfied with the democratic performance on average than people in Western Europe. But there is also cause for hope: the numbers show that the satisfaction with democracy is on the rise—especially in countries whose economics are performing well. As for those CEE countries with lower economic prosperity and lower economic optimism, Vlachová found a lower trust in democratic structures.

Markéta Sedláčková and Jiri Šafr (2008) based their study on trust in state institutions on the institutional and cultural theories mentioned above and tried to show which of these two theories is most likely to apply to the Czech Republic. Based on data from the European Values Study (EVS) from 1991, 1999, and 2008, they concluded that there is at least a weak link between interpersonal and institutional trust. But, so they said in their conclusion, “this weak relationship supports more the so-called institutional theories which understand institutional trust as politically endogenous, i.e., shaped primarily by political factors” (2008: 129), which is typical for countries undergoing fundamental transformation processes. Institutional trust is shaped by the economic and political performance of the institutions themselves.

Changing Trust in Parliament and Its Representatives

The data from EVS from 1991, 1999, 2008, and 2017 show how trust in Parliament and thus in its representatives elected by the people has changed. While at the beginning of the transformation process in 1991, just under 40 percent of the respondents had confidence in Parliament, this value fell to around 15 percent in the 1999 and 2008 surveys. The latest data from 2017 shows that trust in Parliament is increasing again (approximately 25 percent), but at the same time the group that has absolutely no trust in Parliament also reaches its highest value with more than 36 percent of respondents:

Figure 6.
Figure 6.

European Values Study 1991, 1999, 2008, and 2017: Confidence of Citizens in Parliament (EVS 1991, 1999, 2008, 2017).

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 10, 2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100206

The data from a long-term study by the Public Opinion Research Center shows even more clearly how little trust the Czech population has in their Parliament. Since the separation of Czechoslovakia into two independent states, only about one quarter of the respondents have considered the Parliament to have been a trustworthy institution. The mistrust value, however, is well over 50 percent. Even if the value has been improving since 2014 and, at the same time, mistrust has been falling, it is stabilization at a low level.

Figure 7.
Figure 7.

Trust/Mistrust in the Parliament of the Czech Republic (CVVM SOÚ ČR 2020b, with modifications). Available at https://cvvmapp.soc.cas.cz/#question5.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 10, 2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100206

At the same time, we can observe that trust in the country's political leaders is falling: while 72 percent of those surveyed trusted the Prime Minister Stanislav Gross (15 percent mistrusted him) in 2002, only 37 percent trust the current Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš. Some 56 percent of the respondents, on the other hand, do not trust him. While in 2002—during a phase of economic growth—the Czech political system had not faced its biggest (corruption) scandals, the relationship between state representatives and those they are supposed to represent seems to have cooled noticeably. Politics has decoupled itself from the parties and their basic ideas: a politician is no longer rated according to his party affiliation; the trust or mistrust of the voters depends on the specific person (Horký 2018).

Trust and Mistrust in the President of the Czech Republic

As mentioned above, the office of the president has a special position in the Czech Republic for historical reasons; at the same time, this office is strongly influenced by the person who holds it. The long-term study based on data from the Public Opinion Research Center shows that the president generally enjoys a high level of trust among the population: approval ratings of over and around 70 percent in the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s were common for many years,3 as Figure 8 shows. When Miloš Zeman took office, the trust value dropped to around 50 percent, and in 2014 the mistrust in the president was higher than the trust in him. One should expect a higher trust value from Zeman, who was elected as the first president by the population in 2013 after a constitutional amendment.

Figure 8.
Figure 8.

Trust/Mistrust in the President of the Czech Republic (CVVM SOÚ ČR 2020a, with modifications). Available at https://cvvmapp.soc.cas.cz/#question5.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 10, 2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100206

A closer look at the data shows that there has been a strong segmentation of population groups and their trust/mistrust in the president in recent years. While Václav Havel and Václav Klaus enjoyed confidence in all age groups and in population groups with different educational qualifications, the statistical data shows that there has been stronger polarization since 2013. The following figure is based on data from 2013 to 2020, and shows that the willingness to place trust in the president strongly depends on the age category the respondent belongs to. While under 40 percent of those questioned between the ages of 20 and 29 trust the president, it is well over 50 percent of the 60+ generation that does. The opposite is true for the mistrust values: the younger respondents were significantly more skeptical of the president than the 60+ age group: here, less than 40 percent mistrusted the incumbent president.

Figure 9.
Figure 9.

Trust/Mistrust of the President of the Czech Republic by Age (CVVM SOÚ ČR 2020a, with modifications). Available at https://cvvmapp.soc.cas.cz/#question5.

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 10, 2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100206

We find a similar result when we split the respondents according to their educational qualifications: people with a vocational certificate consider the president to be more trustworthy than people with a university degree. In the long-term survey, well over 50 percent of university graduates do not trust him, which is shown in Figure 10 (page 67).

Figure 10.
Figure 10.

Trust/Mistrust in the President of the Czech Republic by Education Level (CVVM SOÚ ČR, with modifications).

Citation: The International Journal of Social Quality 10, 2; 10.3167/IJSQ.2020.100206

How to Explain the Decline in Trust: An Attempt

In the above sections, various attempts to explain the low level of trust the Czech population had in their political institutions were presented: the different salience of the institutions on a national and local level, and the economic, social, cultural and historical factors that play a role in building trust. But one important point has been neglected in these explanations until now: if we return to the definitions of trust presented at the beginning of the article, one further part of the explanation for the high level of mistrust in democratic political institutions could be that they do not meet the expectations placed in them, especially among young and educated people. On the one hand, they are not responding to the concerns of the voters, and on the other hand, they are not proving to have the competence to perform the functions that they are tasked with. The sociologist Linda Woodhead sees the main reason for this distrust in institutions in the fact that citizens no longer believe that they are the focus of interest. The political institutions and those who work in them care more about themselves (Worldwrite 2019).4 This seems not to be a specific Central Eastern European problem, but a phenomenon that can be found in all democracies and that was discovered by the German sociologist Robert Michels as early as 1911. In his book Political Parties, Michels described, based on personal experience and empirical material, the so-called “iron law of the oligarchy”: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy” (1999: 15). Michels assumes that all complex organizations, however democratically they start off, after a while develop into oligarchies because they quickly stop serving the people's interests and they become much more interested in serving their own. He argues that large-scale organizations in modern societies need a functioning bureaucracy with extensive specialization and division of labor in order to be able to cope with their tasks efficiently. These bureaucratic structures concentrate power in the hands of a few people who are intimately familiar with the processes inside. The organization “develops into a professional leadership with a monopoly of skills, knowledge, and resources. This state of affairs, aided by the supposed ‘incompetence of the masses,’ makes the leadership indispensable, as the rank and file come to rely on them for their expertise” (Leach 2015: 201). As power increases, so does corruption and the will to retain the power that has been gained. “The organization becomes an end in itself, and as a result, the leadership becomes susceptible to co-optation and to the displacement of the membership's original goals for the sake of organizational maintenance” (2015: 201).

In my opinion, this concept can play an important role for explaining trust and mistrust in political intuitions at the national level. In the eyes of the population, the political institutions have shown neither the interest nor the competence to tackle the important problems and to work out proposed solutions and then successfully implement them. And the population feels—against the background of their country's communist past and the corruption scandals that have become increasingly public in recent years—that part of the old communist regime is still in power and is pursuing policy in its own interest. Hence, there is the hope that an economically successful and thus financially independent nonpolitician would be immune to corruption and be able to lead the state's institutions more tightly.

Conclusion

Trust, as a highly important aspect of the socioeconomic, the sociopolitical, and the sociocultural dimensions, is a complex concept. At the same time, it provides information about the state of society, its political institutions, and the latter's acceptance by the population. As was established early on in sociological thought, the transfer of trust to state and government institutions is an important characteristic of modern societies, which are a great deal more complex than traditional societies. This also changes the attitude toward risk and its assessment. Regardless of whether trust is located at the micro- or macro-level, it can generally be said that trust in institutions is no longer a priori: it has to be earned. This is because institutions ought to be interested in the concerns of the citizens, satisfy their needs, and demonstrate a certain level of competence. In general, studies show that trust in political and state institutions is falling (cf. Bertelsmann Foundation 2020). In particular, the still young democracies in the CEE region, which have not yet been able to build sufficiently stable structures, are also affected. Various factors influence the degree of trust that the population has in its state institutions: on the one hand, there are cultural and historical factors that determine the level of trust in structures, including socialization in the family, in school, and among friends, according to the arguments of proponents of the cultural theory of trust. Those advocating the institutional theory of trust have other starting points: rational choice theory and putting the performance of the institutions in the foreground, which creates either trust or mistrust. The data on which this article is based and the data produced by other studies (Mishler and Rose 2001; Sedláčková 2013; Sedláčková and Šafr 2008) show that a combination of the cultural and institutional theories of trust may better help us understand the issues at hand. For trust in certain government institutions—especially since the 2010s—both age and education level have played an important role: people in the 60+ age category trust the president more than the younger generation (see Figure 9). With confidence in the European Union, it is exactly the opposite. There is also a clear difference between people with a vocational certificate and people with a university degree. Respondents with a lower level of education have greater trust in national institutions and greater distrust in the European Union (see Figures 3 and 4), whereas people with a university degree mistrust the president more, but at the same time show a higher level of trust in the European Union than people with a lower level of education.

And there might be another aspect that should be considered to complete the explanation for the lack of trust in Czech society (and indeed other societies): the development of the institutions themselves and their perception in the population as Robert Michels (1911) argued in his “iron law of the oligarchy.” The reasons that lead to a loss of trust in institutions, but also within societies—as shown in above—are multicausal and dependent on different factors. These changes always require new studies—including comparative studies and explanatory studies—so that the way is open for further investigations.

Notes

1

Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

2

Relational trust Yamagishi divides into two further branches: the so-called “lovers-type” and the “yakuza-type.” The “yakuza-type” of relationship, which is more important for analyzing trust in societies, “is formed among people who face a highly uncertain social situation in order to reduce uncertainty inside the relationship” (2011: 43).

3

The president of Czechoslovakia from 1990 to 1993 and the president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003 was Václav Havel. His successor was the former Prime Minister and Conservative politician Václav Klaus from 2003 to 2013. Miloš Zeman from 2013 until today has been the Czech president and also former prime minister; he is also the first president who was not elected by the representatives of the two chambers of Parliament—the Senate and Parliament—but by the Czech people.

4

She starts speaking at about 16:00.

References

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    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marková, I. ed. 2004. Trust and Democratic Transition in Post-Communistic Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Medgyesi, M., and Z. Boda. 2019. “Institutional Trust in Hungary and the Countries of the EU.” In Hungarian Social Report 2019, ed. I. G. Tóth, 341357. Budapest: Tárki Társadalmkutatási Intézet.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Medve-Bálint, G., and Z. Boda. 2014. “The Poorer You Are, the More You Trust? The Effect of Inequality and Income on Institutional Trust in East-Central Europe.” Sociologicky časopis [Czech sociological review] 50 (3): 419453. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24642589.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Meyer, S., and P. R. Ward. 2009. “Reworking the Sociology of Trust: Making a Semantic Distinction between Trust and Dependence.” In The Future of Sociology: Proceedings of the Australian Sociological Association Conference 2009, 1–16. Parkville: Australian Sociological Association. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228942995_Reworking_the_sociology_of_trust_Making_a_semantic_distinction_between_trust_and_dependence.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Michels, R. 1999. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. London: Transaction Publishers.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mishler, W., and R. Rose. 2001. “What Are the Origins of Political Trust? Testing Institutional and Cultural Theories in Post-Communist Societies.” Comparative Political Studies 34 (1): 3062. doi:10.1177/0010414001034001002.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Misztal, B. 1996. Trust in Modern Societies: The Search for the Basis of Social Order. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Sedláčková, M. 2013. Trust and Democracy. [In Czech]. Prague: Slon.

  • Sedláčková, M., and J. Šafr. 2008. “Social Trust and Civic Participation in the Czech Republic.” In Trust and Transitions: Social Capital in a Changing World, ed. J. Lewandowski and M. Znoj, 213236. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Simmel, G. 1971. On Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Tabery, E. 2017. Abandoned Society: The Czech Way from Masaryk to Babiš. [In Czech]. Prague: Paseka.

  • Tönnies, Ferdinand. (1887) 2017. Community and Society. London. Routledge.

  • Uslaner, E. 2002. The Moral Foundations of Trust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Vlachová, K. 2019. “Lost in Transition, Found in Recession? Satisfaction with Democracy in Central Europe before and after Economic Crises.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 52 (3): 227234. doi:10.1016/j.postcomstud.2019.07.007.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Weber, Max. (1922) 2012. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Trans. T. Parsons and A. M. Henderson. Manfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Worldwrite. 2019. “The Crisis of Trust in Institutions.” YouTube, 1:20:09, 20 December. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60oKvywniTc&t=987.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yamagishi, T. 2011. Trust: The Evolutionary Game of Mind and Society. Heidelberg: Springer.

Contributor Notes

Nicole Horáková works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Ostrava, Czech Republic. After her studies at the Johannes-Gutenberg University in Mainz and the Free University of Berlin, she started her academic career in the Czech Republic. She completed her PhD at the Institute of Intercultural Education and Migration (IMIS) at the University of Osnabrück and then began to work at the University of Ostrava, where she founded the Department of Sociology in 2013. In her research, she deals with migration issues, changing forms of employment, and postindustrial societies and their identities. Email: nicole.horakova@osu.cz

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The International Journal of Social Quality

(formerly The European Journal of Social Quality)

  • Beck, W., L. van der Maesen, F. Thomése, and A. Walker (eds). 2001. Social Quality: A Vision for Europe. The Hague: Wolters Kluwer.

  • Berman, Y., and D. Phillips. 2012. “Social Cohesion.” In Social Qualities: From Theory to Indicators, ed. L. van der Maesen and A. Walker, 149172. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bertelsmann Foundation. 2020. “Declining Trust in Politics and Parties. A Threat to Social Cohesion?” https://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/fileadmin/files/BSt/Publikationen/GrauePublikationen/303_2020_BST_Abstract_Schwindendes_Vertrauen_ID1087.pdf (accessed 19.02.2021)

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Čermák, D., and J. Stachová. 2010. “Sources of Trust in Institutions in the Czech Republic.” [In Czech]. Sociologicky časopis [Czech sociological review] 46 (5): 683717. doi:10.13060/00380288.2010.46.5.01.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CVVM SOÚ ČR (Czech Academy of Sciences: Public Opinion Research Center). 2020a. “Time Series of Selected Questions from the ‘Czech Society’ Survey.” https://cvvmapp.soc.cas.cz/#question5 (accessed 20 August 2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CVVM SOÚ ČR (Czech Academy of Sciences: Public Opinion Research Center). 2020b. “Trust in Constitutional Institutions in June 2019.” https://cvvm.soc.cas.cz/media/com_form2content/documents/c2/a4970/f9/pi190709.pdf (accessed 18 August 2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • European Commission. 2017. “Designing Europe's Future: Trust in Institutions, Globalisation, Support for the Euro, Opinions about Free Trade and Solidarity.” https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/ResultDoc/download/DocumentKy/78720 (accessed 14 August 2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • EVS (European Values Study). 19912017. https://europeanvaluesstudy.eu/ (accessed 13 August 2020).

  • Fukuyama, F. 1995. Trust: The Social Virtues and Creation of Prosperity. New York: Free Press.

  • Giddens, A. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Globsec. 2020. Voices of Central and Eastern Europe: Perception of Democracy and Governance in 10 EU Countries. https://www.globsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Voices-of-Central-and-Eastern-Europe-read-version.pdf (accessed 17 November 2020).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Herrmann, P., L. van der Maesen, and A. Walker. 2012. “Conceptual Location of Social Quality.” In Social Qualities: From Theory to Indicators, ed. L. van der Maesen and A. Walker, 7093. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Horký, P. 2018. “Trust in Politics Is Declining.” [In Czech]. Respekt, 17 February. https://www.respekt.cz/tydenik/2018/8/duvera-v-politiky-klesa.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Immerfall, S., E. Priller, and J. Delhey. 2010. “Association and Community.” In Handbook of European Societies: Social Transformations in the 21st Century, ed. S. Immerfall and G. Therborn, 737. New York: Springer.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Koreň, M. 2018. “Political Scientist Kopeček: Confidence in the EU Is Low. Zeman Adapted to This Mood and Stands at Its Head.” Euractiv, 27 January. https://euractiv.cz/section/cr-v-evropske-unii/interview/politolog-kopecek-duvera-v-eu-je-nizka-zeman-se-teto-nalade-prizpusobil-postavil-se-jejiho-cela/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Leach, D. K. 2015. “Oligarchy, Iron Law of.” In International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, ed. J. D. Wright, 2nd ed. Vol. 17. 201206. Oxford: Elsevier.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Luhmann, N. 1979. Trust and Power. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

  • Lyons, P. 2013. “Impact of Salience on Differential Trust across Political Institutions in the Czech Republic.” Sociologický časopis [Czech sociological review] 49 (3): 347374. https://www.academia.edu/5698834/Impact_of_salience_on_differential_trust_across_political_institutions_in_the_Czech_Republic.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mann, M. 1982. “The Social Cohesion of Liberal Democracy.” In Class, Power and Conflict: Classical and Contemporary Debates, ed. A. Giddens, and D. Held, 373395. London: The Macmillan Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marková, I. ed. 2004. Trust and Democratic Transition in Post-Communistic Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Medgyesi, M., and Z. Boda. 2019. “Institutional Trust in Hungary and the Countries of the EU.” In Hungarian Social Report 2019, ed. I. G. Tóth, 341357. Budapest: Tárki Társadalmkutatási Intézet.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Medve-Bálint, G., and Z. Boda. 2014. “The Poorer You Are, the More You Trust? The Effect of Inequality and Income on Institutional Trust in East-Central Europe.” Sociologicky časopis [Czech sociological review] 50 (3): 419453. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24642589.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Meyer, S., and P. R. Ward. 2009. “Reworking the Sociology of Trust: Making a Semantic Distinction between Trust and Dependence.” In The Future of Sociology: Proceedings of the Australian Sociological Association Conference 2009, 1–16. Parkville: Australian Sociological Association. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228942995_Reworking_the_sociology_of_trust_Making_a_semantic_distinction_between_trust_and_dependence.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Michels, R. 1999. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. London: Transaction Publishers.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mishler, W., and R. Rose. 2001. “What Are the Origins of Political Trust? Testing Institutional and Cultural Theories in Post-Communist Societies.” Comparative Political Studies 34 (1): 3062. doi:10.1177/0010414001034001002.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Misztal, B. 1996. Trust in Modern Societies: The Search for the Basis of Social Order. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Sedláčková, M. 2013. Trust and Democracy. [In Czech]. Prague: Slon.

  • Sedláčková, M., and J. Šafr. 2008. “Social Trust and Civic Participation in the Czech Republic.” In Trust and Transitions: Social Capital in a Changing World, ed. J. Lewandowski and M. Znoj, 213236. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Simmel, G. 1971. On Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Tabery, E. 2017. Abandoned Society: The Czech Way from Masaryk to Babiš. [In Czech]. Prague: Paseka.

  • Tönnies, Ferdinand. (1887) 2017. Community and Society. London. Routledge.

  • Uslaner, E. 2002. The Moral Foundations of Trust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Vlachová, K. 2019. “Lost in Transition, Found in Recession? Satisfaction with Democracy in Central Europe before and after Economic Crises.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 52 (3): 227234. doi:10.1016/j.postcomstud.2019.07.007.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Weber, Max. (1922) 2012. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Trans. T. Parsons and A. M. Henderson. Manfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Worldwrite. 2019. “The Crisis of Trust in Institutions.” YouTube, 1:20:09, 20 December. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60oKvywniTc&t=987.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Yamagishi, T. 2011. Trust: The Evolutionary Game of Mind and Society. Heidelberg: Springer.

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