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Crisis, Trust, and the search for Political Security

Published onJun 30, 2023
Crisis, Trust, and the search for Political Security
About the author
Alejandro Milcíades Peña is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the Department of Politics of the University of York (UK). His research focuses on international politics, political sociology and Latin American politics.


The inspiration for this chapter, and the first drafts of it, emerged before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the first truly global crisis of this millennium. The pandemic soon proved to be a manifold, a series of ‘crises within crises’ as Heidemann writes in the introduction chapter to this book, with many intersecting social, economic, political, and personal frailties colliding in ways that were previously thought to be distant and improbable. It was a health crisis, an economic crisis, an international crisis, a leadership crisis, a mental health crisis, a cooperation crisis, a work crisis, an education crisis, and so forth, all wrapped into a mutating and evolving bundle. Before its effects subsided (and this book was published), the world faced yet another crisis with global and variegated repercussions, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with diverse commentators adopting the term ‘polycrisis’ to underline the negative, multidimensional, and amplifying interconnections and cascading effects that followed (an energy crisis, a cost-of-living crisis, a security crisis). In this short period many of the examples and references I first used have become dated, but the concept the chapter develops, “political insecurity”, has gained even more relevance, as it is now frightening evident that the political visions and institutions that supported the world of yesterday are irreversibly damaged, while the shape of what is coming is not yet visible. As we cannot yet know what the lasting consequences of these polycrises will be, and I am not sure we can agree on the solutions, I write these words with a naïve academic hope that the argument here made – that people respond to political insecurity by trying to rearticulate social and political trust in different ways – can help us to better interpret this complex world of ours and the insecurities that it engenders, and to devise more sensitive and inclusive ways to deal with them.

Less tragic was learning that the idea of political insecurity is not so original, as even if arriving somewhat late to the conversation, I am indeed in good company. A number of prestigious intellectuals have been highlighting an epochal connection between a sense of widespread crisis and generalised feelings of insecurity. For instance, in an interview in the Spanish newspaper El País in February 2020, even before the pandemic took force, the French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky observed that we (in the West?) have become ‘insecure of everything’, inhabiting a culture of anxiety brought about by our increasingly individualised aspirations and a progressive loss of confidence in the idea that politics can provide solutions to the problems of society (Hermoso 2020). A few years before, in his book The Age of Fear, German sociologist Heinz Bude (2018: 5) argued that people were increasingly motivated by negative rather than positive messages, meaning that ‘our mode of social integration is shifting from the promise of advancement to the threat of exclusion’, the fear to be left behind. Writing after the election of Donald Trump, the acclaimed North American philosopher Martha Nussbaum (2018) linked the current climate of political crisis with rampant fears across ‘Western’ society being projected ‘outwards’, towards foreigners and minorities, while in a short essay appropriately titled The Age of Insecurity, political scientist Ronald Inglehart (2018) claimed that economic insecurities were exacerbating cultural pressures towards authoritarianism, energising the drivers behind a perceptible democratic retreat. Similar assessments can be found in other academic and outreach texts, with globalisation, automation, individualisation, and populism targeted as the usual suspects for bringing about an era of uncertainty and insecurity, the features of the ‘liquid modernity’ Zygmunt Bauman (2000) augurated.

Moreover, that politics, understood as institutionalised ‘routine’ government-centric politics, can be a source of insecurity rather than a solution to it, a mechanism to make decisions, advance public goods, and solve collective action problems, is an idea with a well-established pedigree in sociological and political thought – from the lack of trust Kant and Tocqueville had in the modernising abilities of European monarchies to Marx’s suspicion about the capacity of the bourgeoise state to reign global capital, to, somewhat more recently, Jürgen Habermas’ crisis of legitimacy in modern capitalist democracies and Niklas Luhmann’s pessimistic assessment of politics in a functionally differentiated world society. Through different arguments, these and other theorists posited views where contemporary ‘politics’ became increasingly characterised not by its possibilities but rather by its limitations, as political institutions struggled to ‘govern’ a society where certain spheres, such as the economy, technology, the mass media, and an increasingly global civil society, have become more complex and detached from traditional political jurisdictions.

However, until recently, it could be thought that these concerns were either the remit of a narrow circle of intellectuals and their niche group of readers, or part of the background experience of people living in places where politics recurrently failed in delivering the standards of living and governance associated with Western progress. The realisation that ‘political’ insecurity, as I will define it ahead, now extends to citizens in the global North has added a urgency to these concerns, with a thriving bibliography now relating this to a contemporary crisis of democracy marked by the surge of protest populism and the worrisome appeal of illiberal, nationalist, and authoritarian projects across the developed and developing world, from the US and Britain to India, Turkey, and Brazil (Fukuyama 2018; Ikenberry 2018; Inglehart and Norris 2017; Kriesi 2014; Mudde 2019). A range of metrics confirm that citizens in affluent liberal democracies not only distrust their political authorities but grant increasingly legitimacy to radical and populist agendas thought to rest in the dustbin of history (Kitschelt et al. 2010, 8; Snyder 2019). Trust in the US government is at historically low levels, with a recent PEW survey indicating that 75% of US citizens admit to be losing faith in the federal government, a trend particularly salient among the young (Rainie and Perrin 2019). In Europe, confidence in political institutions collapsed in those countries that were more severely impacted by the 2009 economic crisis, and 58% of EU citizens have expressed distrust for their national governments (EC 2018). In Latin America, only 20% of people believe their countries to be progressing at all, and not surprisingly only a third approve of their governments, while a similar proportion claiming to be indifferent to democracy (Latinobarómetro 2018). Whether these trends will continue is hard to say, but some authors like philosopher Byung-Chul Han (2020) saw developments during the pandemic as a final blow to the Fukuyamean imaginary that supported the historical confidence of the West for at least half a century, particularly as this is being challenged by a growingly assertive China. 

Against this background, this chapter sets to develop a conceptual argument to conceive the manner in which different groups may respond to this pervasive sense of political insecurity. However, I do not aspire to develop a theory of crisis, nor do I seek to engage with one single form of crisis as ‘The Crisis’, or to derive the ultimate cause behind social, political, and economic problems and inform eventual solutions. I make a more modest proposition: that different perceptions of political insecurity are behind the orientation different actors give to their responses to crisis. As explained ahead, under this treatment of political insecurity I consider a variety of assessments actors make about the failure of politics and/or the reasons why authorities cannot, or do not want to, respond to certain problems afflicting ‘them’, their communities of reference, or society at large. Hence, for some, political insecurity and crisis stem from the failure of authorities to tackle economic stagnation, inequality, and falling incomes, by their inattention to environmental degradation and climate change, by their unwillingness to confront racism, nationalism, or the erosion of democracy and human rights, or to curtail the power of corporations, technology giants, or evil authoritarian regimes. For others it may be the opposite, so that insecurity is caused by the incapacity of governments to stop the loss of jobs to far away locations, the ‘threat’ posed by migrants and foreigners to employment or national culture, the poor defence of the interests of the ‘common people’ by arrogant urban elites, or the rise of competing civilisational narratives from emboldened illiberal regimes. In any case, these and other views illustrate different interpretations and form of decoding crisis, shaped by contextual conditions, political cultures, and quite importantly, by specific social locations and intersecting vulnerabilities confronted by different groups in society. However misguided we may consider some of these interpretations to be, how crisis geometries are experienced is fundamental to understand how people, movements, and elites devise solutions and strive to recover political security – deciding for instance, to vote against belonging to the European Union, migrate to a far-distant and not very welcoming continent, or to protest in the streets to topple an authoritarian government.

To elaborate this argument, in the sections ahead I connect a definition of political insecurity with a discussion about how different conceptions of social and political trust sustain different collective action and crisis responses, depending on how the functioning of political authorities and the legitimacy of social institutions is conceived. Following this, I elaborate a typology of responses to political insecurity, unpacking four general responses and discussing a variety of political agendas, movemental frames, and modes of governance associated with these ideal types. In this way, this chapter provides a meso-level conceptual platform to interpret different praxeologies of crisis, be this inclusive and progressive or more exclusive and conservative, while offering a basis to contrast and reflect upon the initiatives and cases explored in the chapters ahead.

Political Insecurity, Grievances, and Trust

Strangely, the term political security is sparsely discussed in the social and political science literature, and when it is, it either refers to the security of a government or regime (i.e. the political security of Assad’s Syria), or to the political and legal guarantees individuals enjoyed under a given regime (i.e. there is limited political security in Assad’s Syria) (Mceldowney 2005; Paris 2001; Rothschild 1995). This narrow usage possibly reflects the long association of the concept of security with the discipline of International Relations (IR), be this through realist arguments concerned with ‘state security’ or more recent critical conceptions of ‘human security’, the ‘freeing of people […] from those physical and human constraints which stop them carrying out what they would freely chose to do’ (Booth 1991, 319; Chandler 2012). My first step is then to decouple the notion of political security from this ‘internationalist’ usage and reformulate it more in the lines of constructivist and praxeological approach preferred in this book. Accordingly, I define political insecurity as a generalised feeling of threat resulting from a lack of trust in the capabilities and/or convictions of political authorities to protect or recognise pressing collective interests or vulnerabilities, however these are defined.

This definition serves two purposes. First, it captures the fact that different social groups not only have distinct exposure and levels of sensitivity to particular threats, risks, and geometries of crisis, be this climate change, racialised violence, job insecurity, or the risks of dying from a Covid-19 infection. As such, it remains open to the possibility that people can have very distinct expectations and preferences regarding how political authorities should act to address and ameliorate their feelings of insecurity.1 For example, environmental movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, and those rallied behind the agenda represented by Greta Thunberg are motivated by the threat of climate change and global warming, but also by an acute concern that neither authorities, large businesses, or the older generations, are not doing enough about it. A similar point could be raised in regard to a variety of anti-elite movements, left and right of the political spectrum. Take for example the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), led by comedian Beppe Grillo and until recently in the ruling coalition in Italy. The success of this anti-establishment movement party is rooted in a strong distrust for mainstream political elites (Mosca and Quaranta 2017) – a similar distrust that in Ukraine facilitated the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, another comedian whose popularity – before the Russian invasion catalysed it dramatically – came from playing a TV show role as a honest outsider reaching the presidency of a highly corrupt country (!). Or take the German PEGIDA movement and many other European anti-immigration and anti-Islamic movements and parties: while structurally the appeal of these groups could be attributed to economic grievances, supporters are often mobilised by rooted sentiments of exclusion and insecurity against hegemonic liberal/cosmopolitan narratives that marginalise them (or make them feel marginalised), turning against foreigners and minorities but also against conventional political actors and discourses (Rucht 2018; Pirro and Castelli Gattinara 2018).

A second advantage of this definition is that it takes distance from structural arguments where a crisis acts as a super-structural force. For instance, the examples above could be considered a consequence of a crisis of representative democracy, as Peter Mair (2002: 91) argued, pointing to the loss of capacity of political parties and republican mechanisms to mediate political representation and participation. Others, like economist Thomas Piketty, would consider these events indicative of a long-brewing crisis of capitalism, which is not only producing rising levels of inequality but contributing to an imminent global environmental crisis (Kahloon 2020). Backlash theories, as mentioned, underline instead a countercultural movement against dominant liberal cosmopolitan visions by sectors of society that resent the loss of traditional norms and privileges (Inglehart and Norris 2017). Accordingly, while I do not dispute that experiences of crisis and political insecurity can be sustained by objective changes in material conditions, which intersect with situated vulnerabilities arising from differential social positions, for reasons of space I do not elaborate on how specific locations shape particular forms of political insecurity, nor prioritise any particular geometry of crisis as more urgent or dominant than others. Instead, as explained ahead, I take an inductive leap and consider that responses to crisis say something about how political insecurity is understood by different actors.

To explore this idea, I first draw insight from the sociology of collective action, particularly on the relationship between grievances and action frames. Grievances are understood as ‘the experience of illegitimate inequality, feelings of relative deprivation, feelings of injustice, moral indignation about some state of affairs, or a suddenly imposed grievance’ (Van Stekelenburg and Klandermans 2013, 888). At the root of collective mobilisation, until recently grievances were rather sidelined in social movement analyses given that ‘much like weeds, [they] were thought to flourish naturally and abundantly’ (Snow 2004, 382), and so were considered to provide only static and under-determined accounts of more complex processes of social mobilisation (Jenkins 1983; Bergstrand 2014). However, since the 2008 economic crisis there has been renewed interest in exploring how structural changes in society are configuring new types of grievances and perceptions of threat and crisis, which in turn are altering social and political preferences and identities, and generating new social demands and new ‘structures of social mobilization’ (Simmons, 2014: 514; Almeida, 2019).2 Now, to sustain social movement action, campaigns, and other collective responses grievances need to be interpreted and decoded through ‘collective action frames’, general schemata of attribution that mediate opportunity and action, granting discontent with potential ‘vectors’ of mobilisation, a direction and an intensity (Benford and Snow 2000; McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2002). Provided by social movement actors, political entrepreneurs and elites, frames are a fundamental component in any praxeology of crisis, insofar as they are the grammar through which social actors collectively interpret grievances and diagnose crises, ultimately informing answers to the question raised by Lenin and others revolutionaries and reformists: what is to be done?

In this sense, I approach political insecurity as something of a ‘meta-grievance’ that captures a generalised feeling of political failure, incapacity, or lack of action by authorities, responding to different perceptions of threat and ultimately to different underlying grievances, threats and risks. However, political insecurity needs to be framed in order to generate a mobilisational response, a vision of change aimed at improving political insecurity and ameliorating the sense of crisis. For instance, the Covid-19 crisis was painted by nationalists and state propagandists as a reminder of the importance of the state and reinforce calls for reinforcing national borders and citizenship conditions (Rachman 2020; Legrain 2020). Europeanists and liberal cosmopolitans instead, used the same crisis to advocate for the opposite vision, framing it as an example of our shared humanity and exposure, calling for the strengthening of international cooperation and solidarity. Simultaneously, different politicians framed the pandemic to highlight their regime strengths and denounce their opponents’, while environmental civil society groups sought to present the pandemic both as an outcome of the irresponsible exploitation of nature and as an opportunity to advance alternative globalisation ideals and ‘green recovery’ programmes (Krukowska and Shankleman 2020).

How can we analytically conceive and scrutinise different framings of political insecurity and the responses they may support among different groups? In the section ahead, I consider this is possible if we relate political insecurity and its correlate, the pursuit of political security, in terms of social and political trust.

Trusting Others and Political Authority

The more common way of thinking about trust is as a relational attribute that links individual cognitive and emotional attitudes with certain social and collective attributes – with Hardin (1992: 154)’s classic definition outlining it as three-part relationship where ‘A trusts B to do X’, so that A, a cognitive agent, ‘feels’ trust that B, which may be a person or not, will perform X for a given purpose or goal. Hence, even when experienced at an individual level, feelings of trust necessarily link back to a broader social environment, so that ‘we may say that trust exists in a social system insofar as the members of that system act according to and are secure [my emphasis] in the expected futures constituted by the presence of each other or their symbolic representations’ (Lewis and Weigert 1985, 968).3

Moreover, a long tradition of social theorising tells us that the security produced by the sense of ‘mutual faithfulness’ and belonging associated with trust constitutes a basic prerequisite for any society to function, as the moderation of future risks and doubts is what allows the reproduction of solidarities and the temporal structuring of social interactions and institutions. Even more, modern society and its basic institutions emerged from evolutionary changes in the patterning of trust. From Tönnies’ distinction between Gesselschalft and Gemeinschaft, to Durkheim’s one between mechanical and organic solidarity, theories of modernisation have linked the qualitative jump in the complexity of social relations in modern industrial society with the emergence of systems of contractual relations, technocratic expertise, role differentiation, and bureaucratic forms of organisation – that is, with a shift from personalised forms of trust to more generalised and impersonal patterns (Giddens 1990; Luhmann 2017; Seligman 1997; Newton 2001). Thus, while pre-modern cultures, says Giddens (1990: 80), deposited trust in direct ‘facework commitment’ and personalised and localised trust systems such as kinship and community (extended through religious cosmologies and traditional routines), the transition to modernity involved the extension of social relations and activities in both time and space on the basis of the rationalisation, depersonalisation, and abstraction of trust. These changes in the working of trust corresponded with deep processes of personality development and the formation of what Giddens called ‘ontological security’: confidence in the continuity of individuals’ self-identity and ‘in the constancy of their social and material environments of action’ (Giddens, 1990: 92). This generalised trust in the functioning of our surroundings is what enables us to have confidence in the ‘faceless’ commitments and ‘strange knowledges’ at play in our daily routines, enabling us to navigate unconcerned a world too complex to be apprehended subjectively (think, for example, if you can explain the functioning of routine artefacts such as the internet or the touchscreen on your phone). German sociologist Ulrich (Beck 1992, 2006) extended this idea to pose the entry into a second modernity and the configuration of a ‘world risk society’, where the complex technical systems making everyday interactions and lifestyles possible constantly and often inadvertently generate new global risks – risks revealed at the time by technological catastrophes of the scale of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Asian financial crisis.4

By connecting trust, complexity, and security, Beck raised a critique to what he considered the excessive ‘mathematized morality’ of expert and technocratic thinking, but also to the romantic attachment to the notion that states (that is, territorialised political authority) could shield people from these emerging dangers – thus bridging the operation of trust in society with expectations about political and state performance. In this regard, Beck touched concerns about the functioning of trust more common in political theory and comparative politics, where this is viewed as a basic element shaping the stability and quality of political systems, and a fundamental condition for the effective functioning of democratic societies. Again, the shift from particularised to generalised forms of trust is seen as playing a basic role in the modernisation and democratisation of politics, as the spread of diffuse mechanisms of trust, such as social and legal equality, facilitates the formation of extended social networks and the pluralisation of civil society associations, and changes on the basis of political legitimacy and authority – from particularistic attributes and loyalties (to a monarch, for instance) to depersonalised and rationalised foundations, such as the unbiased application of the rule of law, constitutional limitations of political power, widespread political participation, etc. These changes in trust enable the formation of more extensive, stable, and progressive forms of political organisation, the basic source of the social dynamism Tocqueville found in abundance in 19th-century USA and lacking in monarchic Europe.

At this point, it becomes relevant to separate social trust, trust based on interpersonal and intergroup relationships, and political trust, the trust citizens have in governmental institutions. In general, scholars tend to reckon that these two forms of trust have different foundations, with Uslaner (2018b: 4) indicating that social trust is more stable and fundamental, as it rests upon a ‘psychological foundation of optimism and control: The future looks bright and I can make it better’. Political trust, on the other hand, is more short-term, specific, and volatile, and more sensitive to the performance of leaders or ‘trusted’ authorities, so that a poor management of a given crisis, for example, can erode the authority of leader X and make him/her appear as more ‘untrustworthy’. Political trust in this sense is understood to possess a more evaluative and instrumental character than social trust, directed either towards competence of the object of trust to act in the subject’s interest (or be benign to it), or towards the predictability and effectiveness of the object’s commitment and function (Van Der Meer 2019).5

At the same time, social trust is generally viewed as a natural complement of political trust, and therefore, for the healthy functioning of democracy and the (capitalist) economy, with advanced democratic societies being the typical example of what Economics Nobel Prize winner Douglass North denominated ‘Open-Access Orders’ (North, Wallis, and Weingast 2008). Thus, neo-Tocquevillians like Robert Putnam consider that extended levels of social trust reinforce civil engagement and social capital, making social and political networks more horizontal, inducing ‘voluntary’ political participation, and contributing to an environment where the ‘[…] community values solidarity, civic engagement, cooperation and honesty. Government works.’ (Putnam et al., 1993: 116, Putnam, 2000). Similarly, Francis Fukuyama (2018: 93) referred to the rise of modern democracies as the triumph of ‘isothymia over megalothymia’, so that ‘societies that recognized the rights of only a small number of elites were replaced by ones that recognized everyone as inherently equal’. In this regard, the authority casted upon democratic mechanisms, and the political security they are supposed to produce, follows from their efficiency in protecting generalised trust patterns and impersonal political institutions from particularisms and excessive factionalism, so that for example judges, security forces, and civil servants can be trusted as more or less ‘impartial’, and to channel and prevent the unregulated spread of distrust, for example, by organising electoral competition (Warren 2018).6 Social trust thus functions ‘as the glue that keeps the [political] system together and the oil that lubricates the policy machine’, while a ‘reservoir of political trust helps preserve fundamental democratic achievements in times of economic, social, and political crises’ (Van Der Meer and Zmerli 2017, 1). Low levels of social trust and political trust, on the other hand, are seen as conducive to authoritarianism, as they would induce political cynicism and disenchantment in people, where the worst is presumed of political and economic actors, hence disincentivising citizens to keep authorities accountable.

This line of argument allows understanding the direct link established between the crisis of democracy, the erosion of social and political trust, and a growing sense of fear and insecurity in modern society. As summarised in Citrin and Stoker (2018: 63), this would be a consequence of the confluence of two factors moving with different velocities. Regarding the former, structural changes in society (as those described by Bauman, Beck, and others social theorists) that have weakened social trust in traditional forms of authority, contributing to greater ontological insecurity and to a more ‘sceptical political culture’. Regarding the latter, more contextual and contingent developments making a ‘sustained period of successful governmental performance difficult’ranging from negative economic expectations, constant (and negative) media coverage, and the personalisation of political leadership, to increasing partisan polarisation, and populist suspicion for republican institutions and technocratic discourses.

At the same time, behind the smooth linkage between good governance, democracy and the prevalence of generalised forms of trust, lurks a somewhat uncomfortable yet recurrently validated empirical finding: while democratic societies are supposed to be stabilised by the existence of a vibrant ‘high-trust’ community, there is ample empirical evidence that social bonds and solidarities are stronger when these are based on personalised homophilies, such as ethnic or religious identities, and that small and homogenous groups tend to display higher social trust and resilience than large heterogeneous ones (Newton, Stolle, and Zmerli 2018; Brewer and Pierce 2005; Newton 2001). Studies of multiculturalism for instance have observed that strong ethnic loyalties and collective identities contribute to the cohesiveness of civic communities, even if this cohesion restricts inter-group collaboration, meaning that to be successful multicultural societies need to find ways to compensate for this effect –notoriously high-trust societies, such as Scandinavian countries, which are also quite homogenous ethnically, have problems in this sense, as political distrust is often directed against groups considered not have sufficiently integrated into the national culture, such as non-Western immigrants (Fennema and Tillie 2010; Håkansson and Sjöholm 2008).7 In a similar line, McLaren (2012: 230) claims that political distrust against immigrants in Europe is not a consequence of recent far-right politics, but rather a more structural outcome from the construction of modern European states on the basis of national identity projects, making it ‘extraordinarily difficult for many citizens to reconcile the functioning of their national political system with the incorporation of newcomers who are perceived (1) not to share the same culture and values and (2) to be having a negative impact on the economic prospects of fellow citizens’.    

When we consider this second point, we can then think that social and political trust can articulate and complement each other in multiple and stable forms. For instance, this could take the form of reinforcing the liberal connection between generalised social and political trust. Or it could strengthen more communitarian and/or exclusive social configurations and associated visions of collective security, such as those sustaining diasporas and cultural minorities, premised on narrow bonds and identities. On this idea I pose that by distinguishing different species of social and political trust it becomes possible to delineate four generic frames addressing political insecurity, depending on the extent this insecurity is shaped by concerns about political trust and political performance, and by visions of what sustains social solidarity and order. 

Governing Political Insecurity

As presented in figure 1, I call these four analytical responses to political insecurity: Local Governance, Transnational Governance, Hegemonic Politics, and Segmented Politics. These four types emerge from considering how different action frames articulate social and political trust considerations in more general or particularistic terms. In terms of social trust, considerations are particularistic when political security is premised on privileging shared group features or the strengthening of communitarian facework-type of bonds, and generalised when the emphasis is on the legitimacy of abstract attributes or the authority of abstract systems and categories. Similarly, in the case of political trust, this would involve considerations where expectations about political performance are improved if political authorities were to better align with particularised group characteristics, or on the contrary, when political performance is viewed as dependent on subscription and application of general principles of rule and governance.


Figure 1. Responses to Political Insecurity

In my view, the two upper types comprise perhaps the more intuitive type of responses. This is because these rest in principle on more expansive and collaborative forms of trust where political security is enhanced by improvements on governance and regulation, albeit varying on whether this governance performance is considered at a more general and/or international level, or rather at a more localised, and concrete setting. The bottom ones, on the contrary, denote a more illiberal, exclusive taint, given their emphasis on more direct inward-directed forms of social trust. The divide between bottom and upper sections carries a certain reminiscence to Habermas’ distinction between defensive and offensive social movements: correspondingly, movements that do not seek ‘to conquer new territory’ but to protect in-group traits from the advance of modernisation forces (i.e. the state, the market), for instance, by devising alternative forms of rationalised cooperation and community organisation, and movements that promote inclusive emancipatory visions, advancing universalistic moralities and legalities that open up the public sphere and provide ‘new opportunities […] for the reconstruction of personal relationships’ (Edwards 2009, 384; Ray 1993, 62; Habermas 1981).8 While Habermas’ distinction was not without critics, considering it minimised the distributive implications of new identitarian movements (for example, of feminism but also of environmental movements) and the extent to which ‘real-existing’ social movements combined defensive and offensive qualities, the notion that some responses to crisis seek for political security by turning ‘outwards’, by extending trust to others, while others do so by turning inwards and restricting the polity or the conditions of belonging to a community (even if a national one), is useful to consider the multiple and often non-intuitive forms distinct political insecurity frames and praxeologies of crisis can assume.

1.   Local Governance

The more particularistic case in terms of political trust is thus what I call Local Governance responses. This type comprises frames and initiatives that take issue with political insecurity mainly by improving institutional or organisational arrangements in a more circumscribed level or context. The more conventional orientation of this framing is then oriented to enhancing the quality of public administration and/or policy leadership in a certain location or administrative political unit, insofar as political security is associated primarily with the performance of the administrators of politics and the providers of political guidance (Demir and Nyhan 2008). As such, this response to crisis tends to be overlooked within the more expansive crisis-oriented literature, as it involves mainly reformist agendas targeting bureaucratic functioning rather than radical claims or grassroot action: local governance responses are a claim for doing things better, not necessarily for doing them differently. As noted by Krastev (2014), many contemporary protest movements explicitly avoid local governance propositions in their campaign frames, in his view contradictorily shying away from both the revolutionary use of violence to conquer power but also from the times and commitments involved in political gradualism and reformism, demanding that change comes soon but not having clear agendas to implement this concretely.9

Groups pursuing this type of responses would tend to have a more focused, issue-based approach, or put emphasis on local jurisdictions (the region, the city, or the community), as a form of increasing the effectiveness of political decision-making and improving the accountability and responsiveness of political authorities – for example, giving aggrieved minorities or constituencies greater control say over the issues that affect them (Faguet 2014; Corfee-Morlot et al. 2009). Accordingly, this institutional and issue-focused orientation would could favour more ‘private’ and hybrid forms of governance, for instance, where business, civil society organisations, and authorities collaborate to improve the delivery of public goods, or arrangements where democratic legitimacy is complemented with functional expertise (Vogel 2008; Mayer and Gereffi 2010; Bernstein 2011). For instance, at city level, authorities can promote partnerships with business, universities, and neighbourhood organisations to advance the regeneration a particular area, or to implement new environmentally sustainable practices in terms of transport, energy consumption, etc. 

In this sense, while in terms of social trust, these initiatives are aligned with generalised trust visions, such as environmental responsibility, human rights, or institutional politics at large, the improvement of political effectiveness envisions a narrower conception of the ‘stakeholder domain’, so that those more affected by an issue, or with greater knowledge over it, gain greater voice in the political and regulatory process. For this reason, local governance responses can be expected to invite more organised forms of civil society action, albeit this orientation can also be present in social movement agendas. A good example of this are anti-fracking movements, which even if deploying highly contentious repertoires, have found success by adopting localised models of organising, usually targeting municipal authorities and local constituencies to promote legislations protecting a particular region or area (Buday 2017).

2.   Transnational Governance

As we move left, we encounter those frames and responses where political security does not so much follow from performance but from achieving a better alignment with more general, ‘transnational’ systems of authority and rule, ranging from universal value systems to technical and scientific standards. Accordingly, transnational governance responses are characterised by considering these higher social and political principles as a precondition for improved political security and the eventual improvement of political performance.

For this reason, we distinguish two main forms this response framing can assume. First, we encounter those resting on more humanist and normative grounds, aimed at visions of human rights and political freedoms. While the international human rights regime can be considered as the institutional embodiment of this agenda, ranging from national standards to international norms and wide network of actors and institutions long in place (Donelly 1986), the campaigns of many progressive social movements are often oriented in this direction. For instance, pro-democracy groups advocate visions that articulate individual freedoms and democracy with improving political security and economic progress – a patterning particularly strong in former communist countries, for instance, and still strong in places in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where embracing Western democratic values or a more ‘European’ identity is considered a pre-condition for improved political and economic governance and performance.10 We can also consider more solidarist conceptions of global justice or alternative globalisation, as advocated by more left-wing social justice movements, insofar as they combine critiques of economic inequality with visions of communitarianism and enhanced bottom-up democracy (Juris 2008; Della Porta 2015). Here political security is seen as enhanced if the existing political and global economic model would be made more inclusive and egalitarian, promoting new visions of governance around other progressive policies such as deft relief, universal minimum income, or a global corporate tax, as proposition recently supported by the Biden administration and the G7.

The second strand covers initiatives where trust follows from a more extensive application of technocratic knowledges and rationalised regimes (Abbott and Snidal 2008; Adler and Bernstein 2004). Historically, many techno-scientific movements – from the nuclear non-proliferation movement, to the technical standardisation movement and the open-software movement, among others – have argued that aligning policy with science carried evident and ‘universal’ social benefits, considering scientific knowledge and truth-driven collaboration of scientists, engineers, and technocrats as the best way to guarantee human progress (Murphy and Yates 2010; Matousek 2010; Denardis 2009).11 While many of these technocratic movements are humanist in their ideals, their technical orientation often clashes with political and democratic conditions of legitimacy, considering ‘too much’ politics and ideology can result in gridlocks and inefficiencies (Peña 2019). This was the argument raised by neoliberal economists in the seventies, targeting the problems of growth of ailing over-politicised welfare states, while recently this sort of conflict has come to fore during the Covid-19 pandemic, as epidemiologists and health experts became principal advisers on the appropriateness of a wide range of policy decisions.

Interestingly, the Stanford School of sociological institutionalism has argued that rationalised science, technology, organisation, and professionalisation are the main principles of a ‘world culture’ that has become increasingly institutionalized, granting primacy and prestige to technocratic actors, such as international organisations, technical bodies, and NGOs, the guardians of the religion of the modern world, according to Meyer et al. (1997: 166). This rationalised visions also pervade the frames and visions of diverse social movements, be this when pursuing social justice, gender equality, or environmental protection, which somehow have to align and justify their agendas on technical evidence and rational projections – to distinguish from illegitimate fundamentalist, nativist, or anti-science discourses, which are not only irrational but also immoral (Boli 2005). Interestingly, Ulrich Beck (2006: 337) claimed that new lines of political contention in contemporary risk society would emerge along a ‘culture vs science’ axis, particularly on those issues where ‘global risks evade calculation by scientific methods’ granting greater space for cultural perceptions and ‘post-religious, quasi-religious belief in the reality of world risks’. Indeed, while not long ago scholars like Peter Haas (2018: 4) claimed ‘the authority of science to meaningfully contribute to global governance/world politics’ was being contested by populist movements and corporate interests, the pandemic seems to have temporarily strengthened the universal moral authority of science, with governments justifying unprecedented restrictions on the basis of ‘following the science’ (Stevens 2020). This is an interesting point to consider when looking at the chapter by Vliegenthart, as he suggests that if people cannot see science or politics as offering enough guarantees in terms of political security, they could go search for remedies in other belief systems, such as new religious practices.12

3.   Segmented Politics

The two types in the bottom half of figure 1 are characterised by privileging interpersonal forms of social trust as a basis to assess the legitimacy and performance of political institutions. What I have denominated Segmented Politics responses constitute then those frames where political insecurity is lessened if political institutions or authorities were to become more reflective of interpersonal characteristics present in the ‘imagined’ political community. The most direct example of these agendas would be ethno-nationalist, traditionalist, and/or sectarian political frames, insofar as they consider that political security is improved by reinforcing the identitarian fit between the leadership and sectors of the population. Take Brexit, for example: certain elites and segments of the British public conceived that the United Kingdom would be ‘better off’ if its core political institutions decoupled from EU ones – the same plight found in many other movements seeking political autonomy, be these Scottish nationalists or Catalan secessionists. This understanding of political security premised on narrowing the conditions of belonging to the demos, however, this is defined, means that many populist responses to crisis can also be treated as fitting the segmented politics type, even if they are not supported by openly nationalist or conservative claims. This would be the case for instance of certain anti-politics movements, with the Italian M5S mentioned before being a leading example, insofar as this type of movements consider that ‘better’, more legitimate governance result from more direct and/or plebiscitarian connection between ‘the people’ and political leadership, criticising the representational gaps found in indirect republican institutions and/or technocratic forms of governance (Barr 2009; Kriesi 2014).

As any ideal type includes a gradient of possibilities, segmented politics responses could also include more intermediate visions, such as consociationalist or regionalist frames, insofar as they also conceive that social order and political performance are improved if political jurisdictions are divided according to major cleavages in society, as found in places like Switzerland, Bosnia, or Lebanon. In this sense, we can imagine that if these consociationalist visions for some reasons would distance from particularised political trust considerations, they would become more bureaucratic and performance-oriented and thus closer to Local Governance initiatives, for instance, calling for the empowerment of local authorities and more moderate forms of policy devolution.13 However, if political insecurity leads to frames that reinforce particularisms, these visions could assume a more exclusive orientation, moving from performance to identitarian and ideological position, as reflected  – with Bosnia being a good case, as political and economic stagnation is fuelling calls to break up the federation.

4.   Hegemonic Politics

Lastly, if political insecurity rests not so much on distrust of political authorities but rather on perceptions that the main organising principles of the political system are illegitimate or flawed, we move to the bottom right quadrant and what I denominated Hegemonic Politics responses. Contrary to the previous type where political and social trust are considered enhanced if directed inwards, towards strengthening the political community or the boundary distinction between insiders and outsiders, here political security is recovered by promoting the extension of particularised feature or principle, casting it into a broader, potentially ‘hegemonic’ norm that can regulate a larger social space or political body.

This definition allows to capture an eclectic range of responses to crisis that may not be intuitively considered to share a priori similarities. For instance, on the one end, we can include nationalist-grown-large agendas, where some ethnic, linguistic, or cultural qualities serve as the basis to delineate an expanded imagined community, usually but not necessarily in opposition to ‘a foreign’ Other. Throughout history, we can find several instances of these ‘civilisational’ responses to political insecurity. For instance, we could treat the Crusades in this light, where Christian European rules mobilised against the threat represented by Islamic expansion, or missionary campaigns sent to evangelise indigenous people in Asia, Africa or the Americas, insofar as the insecurity produced by the existence of those strange others in distant lands was diminished if they were converted or educated into more familiar ways. We could also think of certain anti-imperial and regionalist projects, such as Pan-Slavism or Pan-Africanism, as representing a form of bounded hegemonic response to political insecurity produced by the experience of foreign domination – by the Ottomans, in the former case, by European powers in the latter.

However, if the social trust qualities are premised on more generalised and abstract ideologies, political security acquires a more universalistic orientation not limited by ethno-territorial considerations. This sort of agendas is common among what Peña and Davies (2019) denominate ‘revolutionist social movements’; movements that aspire to transform the world order by changing fundamental social institutions, norms, or general patterns of interaction. As political security pivots on the expansion of generalised forms of social and political trust, these movements have necessarily a globalist orientation even if locally situated, with many traditional revolutionist movements showing an inclination for ‘exporting the revolution’ and an aspiration to aligning the world with their values, more or less peacefully (Peña 2020; Defronzo 2015). This would allow treating a range of revolutionary programmes as responses aimed at enhancing political and social insecurity, such as revolutionary class-based or identitarian projects (i.e. Bourgeois republicanism, Soviet communism, Islamic fundamentalism). But we could also consider more progressive liberal cosmopolitan agendas, where (Western) human rights and liberal democracy are proposed as what the English School of IR calls a ‘standard of civilization’, or more aggressive neo-imperial variants, such as North American neo-conservatism, willing to align by force the institutions and political culture of the periphery with that of a more ‘civilised’ core. While this may appear perhaps as stretching the concept, the tension of reconciling global and hegemonic aspirations with the respect of particularities can be found in many global social movements and internationalist agendas, from feminism to human rights and climate change, that see national cultures, traditions, and political interests and jurisdictions as illegitimate barriers for ideational and normative change and the formation of alternative forms of ‘we-ness’ (Williams 2002; Ferree 2006). 

Additionally, we can think that the greater weight hegemonic politics responses grant to generalised political trust lowers the importance attributed to immediate performance over longer-term ideological and moral considerations. For this reason, movements driven by this sort of visions could be expected to display a more instrumental ‘just war’ orientation, where the broader goal justifies the means (the reason why many revolutionary and neo-imperial projects saw acceptable the use of violence), a probably display a greater willingness to sacrifice political performance in the near-term, and even the immediate wellbeing of their supporters, for the purpose of achieving long-term objectives. The war in Ukraine, and the increasingly direct confrontation between the US and China, have brought to the fore this sort of dynamics in the public domain, particularly in the West, where “doing business” with countries that do not share basic normative principles (i.e. democracy, human rights) is casted as normatively and politically unacceptable, even if detrimental in other terms. Hegemonic politics sponsoring civilizational visions (West vs Rest) emerges then a solution to the collapse of generalised forms of social trust and to a strengthening of certain ingroup-outgroup distinctions that were previously more marginal. 


This chapter outlines a framework to reflect about responses to crisis and to contrast different movements, initiatives, and agendas from an integrated conceptual perspective. To do so, the chapter proposed that the grievance of political insecurity not only underpins different perceptions of crisis in society, but is key factor notion behind the frames and initiatives structuring the responses to crisis. When this pursuit is unpacked from the perspective of social and political trust, four types of responses were distinguished, from policy concerns that seek the improvement of the performance of local authorities, to more extensive hegemonic ideologies where political security is linked with visions of turning untrustworthy outsiders into more familiar figures. Not intending to be a comprehensive typology, and again underlining the fluidity of the diverse heuristic categories offered, a summary of the types and subtypes discussed through the chapter is presented in figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Summary of Empirical Responses

As mentioned, for many people around the world live in a time where social and political trust are in crisis, and where political leaderships and ideologies that used to serve as a bulwark against certain risks and insecurities are now viewed with suspicion, either as symptoms of deterioration and decay, or as uncapable to find a solution to them, much less dealing with new dangers. The geometries of this grand crisis of political insecurity are thus multi-scalar and complex, and usually evidenced in relation to many other crises and a multitude of grievances (i.e. climate change, migration, post-truth, Covid-19, territorial safety, energy autonomy, etc.) that reveal, once and again, the limits of politics, and fuel motivations for change. Much is left to be said about what drives the appeal of different pursuits for political security, how different projects and initiatives are mobilised and implemented, and what their success or failure means in terms of regaining or reshaping social and political trust. While I cannot elaborate this point in this chapter, I understand the definition (and contestation) of the symbolic boundaries between different responses to crisis and political security frames as the outcome of political struggles and praxis in specific locations involving concrete social actors and movements. The chapter by Melchior and Moes on the crisis of Estonian patriotism, for example, provides a very interesting illustration of both the grounded character and the openness of these situated struggles, and of how different groups in the same country compete on how to define a crisis, and for setting a prevailing narrative to respond to it.  

The typology provided is just one step in this agenda, hopefully inviting further theoretical and empirical investigation of diverse aspects shaping the actual praxeology of political insecurity and crisis: What is the relationship between political security and specific geometries of crisis? How different actors reconcile their social location with visions of political security, and with the resources available to them? How social and political trust intersect with different forms of vulnerability in different societies? How marginalized groups recreate political security? When social trust responses prevail over political trust ones? We could also examine in which instances political security ‘from below’ is preferable or more sustainable than security ‘from above’, and the implications of this distinction. Again, chapters ahead, such as Gardner and Carvalho’s on the urgency of Extinction Rebellion and de Jong’s analysis of migrants’ imaginaries of a safe Europe, provide concrete and detailed explorations of how political insecurities are mobilised in relation to particular experiences of crisis, and how specific actors at different levels imagine trust and pursue security.

As such, what this framework makes evident is that harmonious and coherent responses to crisis cannot be expected in a world society crossed with deprivations, inequalities, and complex intersectionalities, and where what is a general and inclusive form of trust for some can be seen as particularistic and exclusive for others. In a world where influential voices are once again advancing new civilizational, political, and moral divides, this is a point of increasing importance, however uncomfortable it may be. Even more, my argument points to the difficulties of articulating general responses when the consensuses and institutions that warranted social and political security across polities appear to be increasingly fragile. In a sort of Nietzschean warning, lacking a God to turn to, we are left with each other and with our many differences, and with the difficult yet unavoidable task of finding ways to trust each other nonetheless.   



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About the authors

Alejandro Milcíades Peña is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the Department of Politics of the University of York (UK). His research focuses on international politics, political sociology and Latin American politics.

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