COVID-19 Crisis: Government's (Dis)Trust in the People and Pitfalls of Liberal Democracies


Abstract


The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the issue of trust in European democracies. Governments had to both undertake (unprecedented) restrictive measures to manage the spread of COVID-19 and to rely on citizens' willingness to adhere to these measures. Scientific works on political trust generally focus on people's trust in government and stress its centrality during the crisis. Public opinion surveys, conducted during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, reported fluctuating levels of people's trust in national governments. However, it is as important to ask how government constructs trust, including in its own people. In the article, we aim to focus on the latter aspect of political trust in order to highlight the role of trust in such crises as pandemic, and draw evaluative implications for democratic arrangements. Using discourse analysis, we look at how the Prime Ministers (PMs) of three European countries (Hungary, Lithuania, and the Netherlands) articulated (dis)trust as well as constructed images of "Us" in their public speeches informing respective societies about the COVID-19 situation. In PMs' speeches (dis)trust is articulated along a "trust-control" continuum, and we identified distinctive patterns of the "Us" vs. "Them" construction.

Keywords: Citizens; COVID-19 crisis; democracy; discourse analysis; political trust

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