The truth about public trust in government

Trust in government is often thought to be in terminal crisis, but the truth is somewhat more complicated, argues Charles Barclay Roger.

Has there been a decline in public trust in government? Are citizens dissatisfied with the democratic process? Is democracy itself at risk? Many reckon so. Over the past twenty years numerous studies have documented a precipitous erosion of confidence and satisfaction with the way government is working in the OECD countries, forecasting grave consequences for the future of democracy, and an entire field of research has developed in order to explain this trend. But there is, in fact, remarkably little evidence of a decline.

It is, of course, important to first be clear about the term ‘public trust’. It can, first of all, refer to public opinion about the extent to which specific political incumbents, or even politicians as a class, are trusted to act in the public interest. It can also refer to more diffuse attitudes towards government institutions or our political systems in general - whether citizens trust these to operate in a manner which reflects their values as a society. Each identifies a different object that can garner varying, even opposing, degrees of support, but both dimension of public trust are important to consider because they are each part of what renders a government legitimate in the eyes of its citizens.

Typically, therefore, the first stop for studies of declining public trust is to cite survey data from the American National Election Studies (ANES), which have for years asked respondents a number of questions that can be used to track any fall along either of these dimensions. Joseph Nye, for instance, in his introduction to Why People Don’t Trust Government, begins by citing an ANES figure that gauges trust in government in general. He notes that in 1964 over three-quarters of Americans trusted their government to do the right thing most of the time, while in 1996 only a quarter were so trusting. Others figures are more specific, focusing on the conduct of politicians: between 1958 and 1994, the ANES tell us, the share who believed government officials were corrupt more than doubled, from 24 to 52 percent. 

But Americans are hardly alone it seems. Similar declines have been noted by political scientists in nearly all other advanced industrial democracies. In fact, according to Russell Dalton, a leading scholar of political behavior and democratic theory, ‘regardless of recent trends in the economy, in large and small nations, in presidential and parliamentary systems, in countries with few parties and many, in federal and unitary states, the direction of change is the same’. And, what is more, trust seems to have declined among all societal groups - young, old, rich, poor, we are all in this together.

According to the large literature that tries to explain this trend, citizens’ attitudes are a function of their values, which determine what they expect from government, and governments’ ability to meet those expectations. Thus, if support has declined, either governments have been performing poorly, or citizens have started expecting more (or different things) from their governments, or both. 

Performance-based theories generally focus on governments’ ability to effectively address a range of economic and policy related issues. They look at the quality of a government’s economic policies, public services and even foreign policies, and try to connect these to measures of public confidence. Similar explanations look at the corruption and scandal of politicians. And still others try to link levels of public trust to how government and politicians are portrayed by the media.

Theories emphasizing the effects of values or expectations work rather differently, and come in two varieties. The first, generally associated with the work of Ronald Inglehart, a prominent political scientist, contends that younger generations’ social and political values have shifted away from the ‘materialist’ concerns of their parents and grandparents - economic prosperity, security, and personal safety - towards a set of ‘post-materialist’ values - freedom of choice, quality of life, and free expression - which erode respect for authority and thereby reduce public support for political actors and institutions.

The second, couched in a longstanding tradition that goes back to Alexis de Tocqueville, but which in its modern form bears the mark of Robert Putnam, another noted political scientist, known for his books Bowling Alone and Making Democracy Work, maintains that forces of modernization, trends of social and geographic mobility, as well as other factors, such as television, have weakened the bonds holding individuals and communities together and, in turn, eroded both interpersonal and political trust.

All appear to be plausible explanations. Yet evidence of systematically declining government performance or a link between value change and levels of public trust has been hard to establish. Determining whether the quality of government has declined since the 1960s, for example, is a difficult task, but some of the best studies suggest not. Derek Bok’s The State of the Nation finds that governments have made real advances over the years. And, similarly, those who argue that changing values can explain these trends have been repeatedly confounded by conflicting evidence. Thus, many scholars seem happy to settle for the conclusion that the long decline in public trust may, as Russell Dalton suggests, ‘reflect a convergence of causes rather than a single explanation’. 

But, most of all, the trouble with these theories is that the secular decline in trust and satisfaction with democratic government - their basic underlying assumption - just isn’t there. A closer look at the ANES, for example, hardly shows a steady erosion of public trust (see Figure 1). Though current levels are, certainly, not what they once were, it is the degree of fluctuation that is most striking, not the overall decline. After reaching a nadir in 1994, for instance, in which only 19 percent of Americans trusted their government to do the right thing most of the time, support climbed to over 51 percent by 2001. Similarly, the share of Americans who thought that government officials were corrupt declined from a peak in the mid-1990s, and in 2004 was only marginally higher than the share who thought so in 1966.

In Europe, evidence of a continuous erosion in citizens’ satisfaction with the democratic process is absent altogether. Rather than a continuous a decline, the European Commission’s Eurobarometer surveys reveal only trendless fluctuation, and, if anything, even upward tendencies, notably in the Benelux, France, and Italy (see Figure 2). Interestingly, some outliers do exhibit persistently lower average levels of satisfaction relative to other countries, suggesting that national political cultures may result in some systematic differences, yet even this didn’t stop satisfaction from rising to historically high levels (see Italy). And, while big drops have occurred, to be sure, as in Denmark in 1985 and Belgium in 1996, these have been temporary, and equally punctuated by big increases when satisfaction returned to its previous levels. 

All of which begs the question: why have so many studies found otherwise? It may be that the story of decline is, quite simply, sexier than the alternative; that it is easier to attract readers and to justify grant money by emphasizing trends which register falling rather than fluctuating levels of trust. But mostly it is a matter of perspective. It should come as no surprise that studies documenting a trend of decline typically appear in clusters near the bottom of a big trough in political trust. Most notable publications on the subject, such as Why People Don’t Trust Government (1997) and Dissaffected Democracies (2000), the Trilateral Commission’s follow-up to its landmark report The Crisis of Democracy, published in 1974, all appeared when confidence was at a low ebb, when, naturally, concern is highest.

However, even when citizens do become significantly less trusting of their politicians and political institutions, they remain unwilling to embrace any other kind of political system. ‘Democracy is the worst form of government’, Winston Churchill once remarked, ‘except for all the others that have been tried’. And, among the publics of established democracies, that statement rings no less true today. Across the OECD, on average, 90 percent of citizens continue to feel that democracy is the best form of government. And piecemeal reform of political institutions, rather than revolutionary change - support for which is extremely rare - remains the preferred means of improving the way government is working. Thus, we are far from a crisis of democracy; citizens in the OECD are as firmly committed to democratic government as ever before, if not more so.

Certainly, there are times when politicians and political institutions lose the trust of the public - the parliamentary expense scandals in the UK have, no doubt, had a deleterious effect on public confidence, just as the Italian ‘Tengentopoli’ scandals did in the early 1990s, as well as the skullduggery surrounding Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Such marked fluctuations of public trust over the years show that citizens can become deeply critical of their governments. But there is little evidence that such periodic loses of public trust have led, cumulatively, to a long-term erosion of confidence in politicians, political institutions, or our democratic political systems. Rather than the decline, therefore, political scientists should concentrate on explaining the fluctuation of public trust, its ebb and flow - not just why it falls, but why it rises again. However imperfectly, citizens seem to recognize when institutional improvements take place, and trust can be renewed once the incumbents that violated it are thrown out, and that, in many respects, is what democracy is all about.

About the author

Charles Barclay Roger is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia and Liu Scholar at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, having previously worked as a researcher at the London School of Economics.