Political Trust & Distrust: Part 1 of 2

There is rarely agreement within a population on policy priorities and methods. There are a lot of good and bad ideas out there. Some ideas come from our political allies, some come from our opposition. Someone has to sort them out and make decisions. Who can we trust to do that?

Is there a trustworthy system for choosing our leaders, policies, and projects? That question is the topic of this short course. We will review what political trust and distrust are and why both are important. We will also explore how our Constitution’s framers dealt with their distrust of government and how Americans assess our system today. Along the way, we identify actions citizens like yourself can take to keep and defend our Republic.

We hope you will take away at least a few main ideas:

  • Trust, distrust, and mistrust help us navigate through social and political relationships in a way that can increase our well-being and reduce our risks.
  • The framers intended that the Constitution would allow people to work constructively together even if they often distrust or mistrust each other.
  • Participation and decision making should be open to all and free of coercion and repression.
  • Today, many Americans distrust the system because of gaps between how our system was meant to work and how it does work.
  • You can help improve and protect the foundations of our Republic:

      1. get to know people who are different from you, earn each other’s respect;
      2. exercise your Constitutional rights and help others do the same;
      3. never give your leaders more power than you would entrust to your opponents; and
      4. identify a “line in the sand” that will trigger your active defense of constitutional principals.

Note:  In our short course entitled “America: Republic or Democracy,” we established several key definitions and concepts. Many people use the words “democracy,” “republic,” “republican,” and “liberal” in confusing ways. Clarity of definitions is essential for understanding the U.S. form of government. That first, short course will help you sort things out. 


Politics, Distrust, and Trust

Politics, distrust, and trust are all tied up together.
Politics is a word for a contest about who gets to make decisions on our behalf and what those decisions will be.  Politics involve risk. On the one hand, the contest may or may not be peaceful or fair.  On the other hand, it is natural to worry the outcome of the contest might not favor our interests or the public interest.  That’s where distrust and trust come in.  Which leaders do we want to team up with?  How do we want our political system to empower or constrain them? Can we trust that system?

Trust can be helpful.  Trust is an assessment we make that someone or some organization will, with high probability, act in ways that advance our interests fairly and impartially.[1] Social trust relates to people, while political trust relates to the institutions of government.

Trust can be a big time-saver. One of the more important advantages of trust is freedom from monitoring: we spend a lot of time and energy monitoring people we do not trust. That freedom allows us to interact with a wider group of people who might help us economically, socially, and politically.  Thus, a more trusting society is likely to be more productive and less stressed than a less trusting society.

Trust is not always and everywhere a good thing. Naive trust can expose us to high risks.  Distrust is generally, if not precisely, the opposite of trust. With distrust, there is a belief that someone or some organization will act unfairly and against our interests. Mistrust happens when we don’t have enough information to trust or distrust. Mistrust motivates us to pay attention. Together, trust, distrust, and mistrust assist us in navigating through a wide range of social and political relationships in a way that can increase our well-being and reduce our risks.

You might be interested to learn that distrust drove a lot of our Constitutional design. We take up that topic next.

Washington at Constitutional Convention of 1787, J.B. Stearns

The Framers’ Choices

In 1786, the big question was how to create a government strong enough to govern and defend all of the colonies, without creating a new tyranny that would favor one political faction or one person’s ambition.
  The framers of our Constitution were generally in agreement that their original Articles of Confederation would not be sufficient to hold the colonies together.[2]  How could they create a government that all of the colonies could trust enough to support?  That was the big worry as they went into the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

The framers had a lot of distrust on their minds: [3]

  • Some of the framers feared that the government could become a tyranny of the majority faction. A particular fear in this regard came from members of the land-owning class. They worried that the poor citizens, being more numerous, might not be trusted with power.
  • Some worried that a new federal government in a territory as large as the 13 colonies might be too distant from its citizens to understand their needs.
  • Some members of the less populous colonies feared that the larger population colonies would dominate them.
  • Some members of colonies whose economies were built on enslaved labor worried that slavery would be outlawed.

The framers found a way to deal with their distrust. The pervasive distrust the framers encountered at the Constitutional Convention could have motivated them to give up. The whole thing could have been a big failure.  Instead, the framers invented a system of government that directly addressed the distrust. 

Their solution was liberal, republican democracy. Fundamentally, they designed a system meant to:

  • constrain political competition to elections and legislation;[4] thus
  • ensuring that all legislative power is derived from the voters and will remain accountable to the voters;
  • constrain and divide the powers assigned to election winners;
  • guarantee political and civil rights for all citizens, even the losers; and
  • establish a federal system with state governments close to the people and a national government to provide for the common defense.

Note:  We are using the 18th century concepts of small-L “liberal” and small-R “republican.” The word liberal here implies a focus on liberty.[5] The word republican here implies a system of government in which the people and their elected representatives hold supreme power for the public interest.[6] To dig deeper, see our short course “America: Republic or Democracy?”

Voters soon demanded a sixth building block: good policy outcomes. Security, life opportunities, and public services have always been of interest. We will explore how each of these foundational blocks contributes to trust in the next section.

The framers were not perfect.[7] They did not guarantee citizenship to all people within the new United States of America. Indigenous people and enslaved people, almost all from the African continent, were not considered citizens and therefore had no rights. Enslaved people were counted as only three-fifths of a white person in the census. The framers did not use the Constitution to guarantee voting rights to all citizens. Instead, those rights were decided by each state. Initially, only wealthy, white men could vote. Finally, they relied on state lawmakers, rather than the Constitution, to make it illegal (or not) for individual people to infringe on others’ rights.

Some of the framers’ omissions have been addressed. The 14th Amendment clarified that citizenship should be accorded to everyone born in the United States, and anyone naturalized to the United States. The same Amendment guarantees all citizens equal rights, equal protection of the laws, and requires that all people are counted equally. The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, nor on account of sex, failure to pay any poll tax or other tax, so long as they are 18 years or older.  (U.S. Constitution, 15th Amendment, 19th Amendment, 24th Amendment, and 26th Amendment.) The right of indigenous people to vote was handled outside the Constitution, through the 1924 Snyder Act. New Mexico was the last state to comply with that right in 1962.  Progress in stopping personal abuses of other people’s political and civil rights has, however, been uneven.

Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

 Trust and the Constitution

The foundational blocks of the Constitution and its amendments can contribute to trust in several ways.
In this section, we will explore how each of the six building blocks of liberal, republican democracy is connected to political trust and distrust.

Block 1 of 6: Limiting Political Competition to Elections and the Legislative Process

Our trust in the system requires that political participation and decision making are inclusive and free from repression and coercion. All political competition should be channeled through elections and legislative votes. With such limits effectively in place, we need not be fearful that political debate will lead to violence or even war.  We can trust the system with our lives and property. We can also be more trusting that political competition without coercion will be fairer than otherwise.  

It is therefore a principal of liberal republicanism that any citizen may vote and all votes are to be made by free will, without repression or coercion.  You may vote if you wish and how you wish.[8] 

Our Constitution did not originally contain such a guarantee. Instead, the issue of who could vote was left to the state governments to decide (Article 4, Section 4). It took a civil war to motivate the 15th Amendment that says “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Women gained the right to vote in 1920, via the 19th Amendment.  It took many decades of additional struggle and sacrifice before the 15th Amendment was put into wider practice for people of color, notably through the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (A key portion of the Act was subsequently weakened by the Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby vs. Holder.) Additional laws rule out many forms of vote-rigging, vote-buying, and political corruption. (Yes, more work needs to be done.) 

Application: Some state and local governments have used force and legal maneuvers to stop people from assembling, speaking freely, running for office, and voting.  Can citizens do anything on their own to uphold everyone’s political rights? 

Block 2 of 6: Accountability

Our political trust is strengthened when our leaders try to align their interests with ours. Competition through elections and the legislative process gives our elected officials a big reason to pay attention to our personal interests to earn our votes. We can vote for the politicians most likely to serve our interests, and we can choose not to reelect those who have served us poorly.  This will work only as long as our elected officials believe we will vote against them for bad results or for trying to cheat the system.  Our ability to monitor candidates and elected officials is helped by the 1st Amendment protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press (and all forms of media).

“The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society; and in the next place, to take the most effective precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold the public trust.”

– James Madison, The Federalist Papers, No. 57 (Our underlining.)

Block 3 of 6: Constraints on Government Power

Power is trusted only when used to advance or protect our interests.  In this context, the framers wanted a government strong enough to protect and serve them. They also wanted to limit the government so that it couldn’t tyrannize the people. They ended up with a Constitution that limits and divides power in multiple ways:

  • Power is constitutionally limited only to those powers expressly delegated by the Constitution. Most notably, the 10th amendment reserves for the states all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government in the Constitution.  Article 4, Section 1, requires each state to respect the laws of the other states. Moreover, the Constitution’s list of rights is not meant as a limit:  the 9th Amendment is clear that US citizens have rights beyond those listed in the Constitution. 
  • Power is dispersed. Article 1 assigns the power to legislate only to Congress (the Legislative branch) and assigns its powers in Section 8. Congress’s power is constrained by dividing it into a House and Senate, with the House representing the population, and the Senate representing the states. Article 2 assigns the power to execute the law only to the presidency (the Executive branch). Judicial powers are assigned by Article 3 to the Supreme Court.
  • There are checks and balances on power. Article 1, Section 7, gives the president the power to veto legislation unless both houses of Congress can overcome the veto with a two-thirds or better vote. Article 2, Section 4 states that the president, vice president, and all civil officers of the United States can be removed by impeachment if convicted of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.  This same article is one of several sources of congressional oversight powers.
  • The framers’ idea of a strong but constrained presidency was reinforced later by the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to no more than two terms in office.
  • The federal government is explicitly prohibited from using the courts to persecute people.  This is most notably reflected in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th amendments.
  • The framers made it hard to change the Constitution to get around its’ constraints on power. (See Article 5 of the Constitution).

Application:  Although the Constitution assigns all law-making powers to the Congress, Congress has delegated substantial authorities to the president and the executive branch. (See our series of short courses on the presidency.) Does this extra power increase the stakes of winning or losing the presidency? How might this affect our trust if we are on the losing side of a presidential election?

Block 4 of 6: Guaranteed Rights

Our political trust is substantially strengthened by guaranteed political and civil rights. Rights bring two advantages. On the one hand, voters and officials who lose out in elections or legislation can trust that they will not be discriminated against by the winners. They will have more chances to compete fairly in the future. On the other hand, political and civil rights ensure many of our basic interests will be met – freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from unfair and unjust prosecution, and more.

Exclusion and discrimination undermine political trust and risk distrust. Fairness requires that (a) we are all able to participate in, and benefit from, the political system.  It also requires (b) minority rights and protections. Our political system should stop the most powerful factions from dominating the least powerful factions – on account of residency in a large state, population share, income or wealth, skin color, religion, gender, sexual preference, or any other scale. That, in turn, requires (c) fair play achieved through unbiased rules that apply to everyone, and everyone follows faithfully. These three requirements are reviewed below.

  1. Participation: People notice when they are excluded, whether from elections, representation in the legislative process, equal protection of the laws, or public service delivery.[9]
    • Over time, and with struggle, the desire to be included has led to incremental improvements. Today, almost every person 18 years and above has the right to vote and run for office in elections.[10]
    • A legislature controlled by only one faction that agrees on all policies is not much better than a dictator.
    • The magic of collective decision making by elected representatives happens only when there is a true competition of ideas and policies. That competition requires members elected from most or all of the relevant factions within the population.
  2. Minority rights: Without adequate and guaranteed minority rights, there will be a deep and fundamental distrust that the majority might be able to entrench itself into power permanently at the cost of minority liberty and happiness.
    • Providing all citizens with adequate, guaranteed political and civil rights will reduce a majority’s ability to repress minority groups.  Examples include the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the US Constitution) along with the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th amendments, the Civil Rights Act (1964), and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
    • Legislators need minority party rights.[11] The political entrenchment of a majority is also possible through the legislative process. The nation is especially vulnerable in this regard because the Constitution does not require legislative minority rights. Instead, Article 1, Section 5, Clause 2, simply allows Congress to set its own rules. 
      • Within both the House and the Senate, the legislative agenda is controlled by the majority party. Even so, there are some limited minority rights.[12]
      • A controversial minority right within the Senate is the ability to slow things down with the filibuster: unlimited debate on a bill or Amendment unless an extraordinary majority votes to invoke cloture (end of debate). The filibuster has, however, been made weaker over time as majorities lose patience with obstructive minorities. This frustration has historical roots: Southern states used it to obstruct civil rights reforms for many decades.  
      • At the state level, twenty-two of the ninety-nine state legislative chambers have a requirement that all proposed bills be heard in committee.[13] State legislators highlighted this provision as a matter of fairness to minority party members.

In some countries, the majority suffers under the tyranny of a minority.  Examples include white rule in South Africa during the apartheid era and Alawite rule in Syria from 1970 onward. An entrenched minority is made possible, in part, by the same defect that allows an entrenched majority:  a lack of adequate and evenly applied political and civil rights.

  1. Fair Play: It is easier to trust when our interests are respected, and when the rules of the game apply equally to all and are followed by all. People want fair laws, and no cheating or dirty tricks. The principle of fair play is relevant across the board: for elections, legislating, and adjudicating disputes.
    • The laws should apply to all people, and benefit all people, equally.  That’s what is meant by equal protection of the law in the 14th Amendment
    • Similarly, people will trust the court system when they are confident of a fair process carried out by objective, non-partisan judges.
    • Everyone should have equal access to public services, including policing, justice, social security, health care, safe drinking water, and public roads.

Block 5 of 6: Federal System

We tend to trust those who closest to us more than those who are distant. This is both literally and metaphorically true. Some of the framers were worried that a new national government would be too far away from the people to know their interests and represent them well. As the new states (former colonies) already had their own governments, it seemed natural to create a federal system in which state citizens would continue to elect their own legislators. Thus, the framers set up a federal system that required each state to have a republican form of government, per Article 4, Section 4.

  • This requirement ensures each state will have elected legislators who know their citizens’ interests better than those in Washington, D.C.
  • The framers gave the states substantial power through the 10th Amendment, which says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  
  • The states also hold substantial power through Article 1, Section 4, which gives them the right to determine who is eligible to vote, subject to Congressional regulation.
  • Congress regulates elections through laws such as the Voting Rights Act, and Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution, which obligates them to send representatives to the Electoral College to choose the president.

Block 6 of 6: Policy Outcomes

Political trust is earned when our interests are delivered and delivered fairly. (No surprise, right?)  One of the things people care most about is security. People want security for themselves, their families, friends, and any group to which they belong.  People are very sensitive to threats to their physical safety and economic security (water, food, shelter, personal possessions, and wealth).  In fact, this may be one of the most crucial short-term drivers of political trust. For example, many countries that were hardest hit by the Great Recession also saw declines in political trust.  People who benefit from good public services contributing to their physical and economic security tend to trust their government more.[14] 

Most countries with mature liberal republican democracies have a much higher quality of life than most other countries. One reason for this outcome is that limiting political competition to elections and legislative creates a peaceful environment that encourages innovation, investment, and capacity utilization from private entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs in other countries face higher risks of extortion or expropriation by the government or some violent faction.[15]  To learn more about the advantages of liberal republicanism, see our short course “Democracy is Precious.”

The value of the six foundational blocks to political trust has proven to be quite durable over time.  They are relevant even now. Researchers looking at cross-country data found empirical support for a few key concerns that shape our trust in liberal, republican democracy today. They found that representative democracy is more trusted in countries that minimize electoral fraud[16] and political corruption.[17] Accountability encourages trust.[18]  Trust is higher where all citizens are treated fairly.[19] Lower levels of government closer to the people are the most trusted in the United States and Europe.[20] Trust is also higher where government systems are responsive to citizens’ needs, not only for public services but also for economic stability.[21]

We almost lost the Republic just after it was born. Shortly after the Constitution was ratified, some of the framers immediately started pushing against the new system they had created to win their political contests. Vigilance is required. That topic is taken up next.


Base of the Guardianship Statue at the National Archives. Photo credit: Andy.

Keeping the Republic Through Vigilant Mistrust

Constitutions are like fortresses. Even the best fortresses will fall apart if they are not constantly defended from attacks and the ravages of time.  In the case of constitutions, it falls to each of us, and the leaders we elect, to make sure our Constitutions are well defended and are adapted to changing times.

There has been a constant battle, right from the start, between those who would preserve, and those who would weaken, the foundations of our Republic. By way of example, just eight years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, Congress passed a Sedition Act in 1798, out of fear of a war with France. The Sedition Act was utterly contrary to the 1st Amendment: it permitted the prosecution of individuals who voiced or printed what the government deemed malicious. Fourteen Republicans, mainly journalists, were prosecuted. Some imprisoned. In another example, the first attempt by a politician to choose his voters (it should be the other way around) took place in 1812 with the first gerrymandered voting district. Slavery was permitted in many states until its abolition in 1865 per the 13th Amendment, following a bloody civil war. Jim Crow laws took away many liberties meant to be guaranteed to formerly enslaved people and their descendants. These examples are just a few from many throughout our history. There will be more. In this context, we encourage you to keep in mind this phrase attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Vigilant mistrust is a useful and rational attitude to take with regard to the officials and institutions in any government, even in liberal republican democracies.[23]  It is difficult for most of us to get enough good information about our elected officials and the bureaucrats they direct. We want to how competent they are and how their ambitions interact with incentives in the system. A partial solution is to rely on trustworthy people or organizations who make their professional business to understand and monitor specific institutions of government.[24] Ultimately, however, it is up to us to stay watchful and use our elections and our courts to hold our officials accountable for their actions.

For those who would be vigilant, the rest of this section provides a list of ways that liberal republicanism has been attacked in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.  It is not a long list, but it is not short either. Fortunately, many non-partisan organizations do a lot of monitoring on our behalf. You can join or support them.

Block 1 of 6: Limiting Political Competition to Elections and the Legislative Process

Are most consequential policy decisions made by military, religious, or other unelected leaders? If so, then elections have little utility. Elections must lead to real power if we are to enjoy the benefits that elections bring.

Application:  Some citizens support private militias. Yet, the private militia commanders are neither elected nor under the control of elected officials. Could such militia contribute to peaceful and constructive political competition?

Are elections neither free nor fair? Elections are deemed “free” when there are no barriers to voting or running for office. Anyone who is a citizen aged 18 or above should be allowed to vote and run for office. Elections are deemed “fair” when administered without bias from beginning to end, from a regular and accurate census, district design, voter registration, voting, vote counting, and announcing results. Most of the election process is governed at the state level, as set out in the Constitution. Substantial vigilance is needed within each state.

Application: How do you think a government’s legitimacy would be affected if some group is routinely denied the opportunity to vote and run for office?  Could the Republic stand long if the only way to power was through subverting elections?

Can we keep our votes secret? The secret ballot is an essential requirement for maintaining equal rights for all. If a political faction has information on how you voted, they could bribe you for voting the “right” way and punish you for voting the “wrong” way. At a minimum, they might find ways to keep you from voting in the future. At worst, as in some countries in history, you might find yourself beaten or killed or your property destroyed.

Application: Can you imagine some downsides to the practice of sharing selfies of our votes?

Do election losers refuse to accept defeat, claiming offices they failed to win or refusing to give up offices they lost?  That kind of behavior poses a profound threat to any electoral form of government. The threat is especially severe in the case of presidential elections. Incumbents who refuse to leave may organize “self-coups” (also called auto-golpes) to keep power. Challengers who refuse to accept their defeat may threaten to create a parallel government, as in Cote D’Ivoire in 2010,[25] or ignite a civil war, as in Angola in 1992.[26]

Are legislative debate procedures unfair? True political competition requires that high priority laws and amendments from each political party will reach the floor for fair debate. Remember that twenty-two of the ninety-nine state legislative chambers already have a requirement that all proposed bills be heard in committee.[27] The same could be implemented at the federal level if the will existed.

Is information seeking and sharing obstructed? To state the obvious, if communication channels are closed off, or if messages are buried in a lot of noise, then candidates can’t tell us why we should vote for them. Nor can we learn about them accurately.  Thus, we need to be vigilant about our rights.

  • We should have the right to seek information (especially about what our elected officials are and are not doing).
  • We should have the right to freely report what we learn through all forms of media.
  • We should have the right to assemble freely and speak freely to our elected officials and fellow citizens.
  • It is also essential to be alert to disinformation campaigns aimed at misleading, scaring, confusing, or distracting us. Disinformation campaigns are often a part of domestic political campaigns. They can also come from foreign governments or our own government.

Application: How do you feel about this quote? “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  
— Attributed to Voltaire.

Block 2 of 6: Accountability

Can leaders reach power without free and fair elections? In a republic, politicians must believe that all power is derived from the voters and that they are accountable to the voters. Bribery, extortion, intimidation, and actual violence must be illegal and prosecuted by willing and able courts. If the courts are unable or unwilling, then citizens who want to keep their republic must vote out those who would break the system – even if that means voting against officials from their own party.

Do elected officials think we are not watching them?  Our elected officials must believe we are watching them and are willing to vote against them for bad results.  In this light, the arguments above in favor of information seeking and sharing are equally applicable here. The U.S. has a particular problem in this regard as many local newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations have died out.

Can government officials operate without having to report on their activities?  The U.S. constitution does not include any rights to information from the government. By contrast, this right does appear in many other constitutions around the world. Examples include Belgium, Chile, France, Mexico, and South Africa. In the U.S., citizens and the press rely on several laws: the Freedom of Information Act and the Information (Data) Quality Act.  These laws, however, are not universally applicable. They do not require the government to supply information unless formally requested. They are often poorly implemented. They can be challenged in court or changed by Congress.

Is accountability politicized? In contests of polarized identity-politics, each faction seeks to make leaders accountable only to their group.  In autocracies, leaders claim they are accountable to no-one.  Populists are in-between, claiming they are accountable to “the people” while excluding anyone not belonging to their favored identity group. The problem goes deeper: those who support populist leaders are generally very reluctant to hold their leaders accountable for any bad behavior, even when it undermines the Constitution and its liberal republican principles.

Block 3 of 6:  Constraints on Government Power

Have government officials taken more power than what was assigned to them?  Taking on powers and roles beyond what was assigned in the U.S. Constitution and the relevant state and local constitutions should raise alarms. Any of the following would be trouble: the presidency dominating Congress or vice-versa; governors dominating their legislatures or vice-versa: a president or governor using the military, police, or courts to persecute their opposition; federal or state courts going beyond adjudication into law-making or the execution of the laws; one state infringing on the governance of another; or a president or governor insisting on remaining in office after having been voted out or despite term limits.

Application: Can an election be considered fair if the party controlling the executive branch can use government resources (money, people, property, and policies) to promote its’ campaign?

Are government officials, or citizens, trying to make it easy to change the Constitution? Other than unified citizens, the single most powerful constraint on power is the Constitution. For this reason, the framers intended that changing it should be difficult. Attempts to make amendments easy are likely to be accompanied by substantial harm to the Constitution. Several republics around the world became more autocratic after their constitutions were altered. Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution requires that both houses propose an amendment with a two-thirds vote, and three-fourths of the states approve of that Amendment through their legislatures or through ratifying conventions.  Alternatively, two-thirds of the state legislatures may call on Congress to hold a constitutional convention, and three-fourths of the states approve any resulting amendments through their legislatures or through ratifying conventions.

Block 4 of 6:  Guaranteed Rights

Are some groups of people denied their political and civil rights? The framers worried that our government would be the biggest threat to our rights. History shows, however, that many ordinary citizens and business owners have also acted against the rights of others. Discrimination against people of color is a long-running problem. Other forms of discrimination linger as well, including against Jewish people, Catholic people, Muslim people, LGBT people, and others.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 
— From the Declaration of Independence

You have some responsibility for upholding rights.  If you value democracy and our Republic for its peaceful and constructive political competition, then you must be mindful of how your actions impact on our system – even when your actions are legal.  We offer just a few examples. 

  • It may be entirely legal to shout someone down – but that surely gets in the way of free and fair political debate. 
  • It is legal to troll people online, but it kills off any productive exchange.
  • It is legal in many states to bring guns to a meeting or a public gathering, hoping to intimidate the other side, but the resulting fear and resentment will ruin any chance of cooperation or compromise – and might risk an escalation to violence. 
  • It may be legal to campaign to get someone fired for holding views you disagree with, but that is strongly against the spirit of the 1st Amendment right to free speech and the 6th and 7th Amendments guaranteeing the right to an impartial jury trial.

Block 5 of 6:  Federal System

There are many opportunities to undermine the foundations of our system at the state and local levels. These opportunities occur because their governments touch our lives much more often and in many more ways than the federal government can. Most fundamentally, the states are responsible for the administration of our elections. Their policies determine the degree to which we can have free and fair political competition. The states can also affect our rights through their control of the state police and the state courts. They also govern many public services, including a wide range of regulations and provision of educational services and welfare programs. State officials can sometimes be the cause of problems, but so too can federal officials, particularly when they attempt to dictate policies that the Constitution left for the states to decide.  In this context, we note that the federal government is prohibited by law from imposing unfunded mandates.

Are state governments dictating local policy too often on too many fronts? Even though legal, such behavior would violate the spirit of liberal republicanism.  Cities and towns are usually responsible for local police and fire services, municipal courts, zoning laws, public housing, public parks, water supply, sewerage, and trash removal. They often share responsibility with the states for educational services.  The existence of local governments, and the maintenance of their policy decisions, are subject to state control. This fact makes the relevance of local elections and local decisions contingent on the behavior of state-level officials.

Block 6 of 6:  Policy Outcomes

Are some people denied the benefits made available to others? Earlier, we pointed out that people will trust the system more when it delivers good results, particularly concerning security, opportunity, and public services.  We briefly touch on each below and add some observations about the input side – personnel and funding.

Do some groups get less security than others?  Disparities will make the under-served less trusting of the system.  Theft and physical harm are criminal acts. It should not matter where those crimes occur, how the crimes were accomplished (with a weapon or an administrative maneuver), or who the criminals are. By implication, to feel secure, citizens need more than police. We also need good regulations, laws, and courts to protect us from bad actors in business and government.

Do some groups get better public services than others?  Are public services such as education, water supply, sanitation, and traffic management provided equally to all residents of a state or local government?

Are some people denied the opportunities available to others? The degree of private ownership becomes an opportunity for political entrenchment when control is concentrated in the hands of only a few powerful people or institutions – in or out of government. Disfavored people and firms may be denied access to credit, licenses, contracts, or even property rights.

  • In Belarus, the government had control of 60-70 percent of the economy. When someone becomes too vocal in their opposition to the leadership, it is easy for the government to cut off their income.[28]  Independent media may be deprived of access to airtime, newsprint, or advertising. Public employees may be forced to work for the governing party. Critics may be fired, blacklisted, or denied access to goods and services. 
  • In the U.S., a different sort of problem exists along racialized lines. For example, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation implemented in 1936 a policy of discrimination against home ownership by people of color. This practice has been much reduced – but not eliminated – after the  Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977.  A new challenge today is to keep red-lining out of artificial-intelligence programs.

Prioritizing loyalty over skill and knowledge (in the armed forces, intelligence services, judiciary, police, and government agencies) is a sure sign of autocratization. It is also a death sentence for effective and fair public service delivery. 

Running unsustainable government deficits or allowing high inflation rates is sure to undermine public service delivery. Too much borrowing creates interest payment obligations that will crowd out spending on public services – or increase our taxes – unless the government successfully promotes adequate economic growth and maintains the ability to collect taxes.  This reality puts pressure on us to think about our priorities and what our government can afford to deliver.  A virtuous circle can be established if a few well-delivered public services help build trust in the system, which, in turn, encourages more people to pay into the system so that more services can eventually be provided.

Application:  How well do you think the elements of political trust and the 6 foundational blocks of our system fit together today? 

­­Our system’s continued ability to constructively manage political conflict depends on our willingness and ability to hold the line against the sorts of infringements listed above.  Have we been doing a good job so far?  How well have we been doing as a nation?  We take up that question next in Part Two of this short course.


Congratulations!  You have completed the first half of the short course on Trust & Distrust.

Here is a summary of the key points you learned. Politics, distrust, and trust are all tied up together. Politics is all about who gets to make decisions and what those decisions will be.  Which leaders we team up and how our system of government constrains them is important. Trust is an assessment we make that someone or some organization will, with high probability, do something aligned with our interests in a fair, impartial manner. One of the more important advantages of trust is freedom from monitoring. That allows us to interact with a wider group of people who might help us economically, socially, and politically – thus allowing our entire society to become more productive and less stressed.  Distrust is the belief that we are at risk because someone or some organization has interests that are incompatible with our own. Taken together, trust, distrust, and mistrust assist us in navigating through a wide range of social and political relationships in a way that can increase our well-being and reduce our risks.

Distrust drove a lot of our Constitutional design. In fact, the framers invented a system of government that directly addressed the distrust.  Fundamentally, they designed a system that relied on (1) constraining political competition to elections and legislation; (2) thus ensuring that all power is derived from the voters and will remain accountable to the voters; (3) constraining and dividing the powers assigned to election winners; (4) guaranteeing political and civil rights for all citizens, even the losers; and (5) doing all of this in a federal system so that state governments would be close to the people while a national government could provide for the common defense. These are the basic foundational blocks of liberal, republican democracy.  Voters soon added a sixth building block: good policy outcomes.

Shortly after the Constitution was ratified, politicians immediately started pushing against the new system they had created to win their political contests. We almost lost the Republic just after it was born.  That kind of pushing will always be with us so long as leaders and their supports believe there are advantages to breaking the rules. Thus, we need to always be vigilantly distrustful in defense of our Republic.

If you learned something useful, please Like and Share.

© Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy

October 2020

This booklet may be copied and distributed only for non-profit, non-partisan, educational purposes and only with proper credit to the Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

Written by Douglas Addison for the
Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

Principal Reviewers:

Jennifer Dresden
Associate Director, Democracy and Governance Program
Georgetown University

Kenneth Newton
Professor of Comparative Politics, Emeritus
University of Southampton

Sonja Zmerli
Professor of Political Science
Sciences Po Grenoble

CFFAD is a non-profit organization providing non-partisan civic education.

Cover photo: Lawrence Jackson, whitehouse.gov/public domain


[i] This definition and paragraph are drawn from elements of chapter 1 of the Handbook on Political trust and chapters 1 and 3 of The Oxford Handbook of Social and Political Trust. Note also: Trust is not the same as predictability. Predictability does not require a relationship and is not specifically tied to our interests.

[ii] See https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/10-reasons-why-americas-first-constitution-failed

[iii] Many of these doubts and fears were directly addressed by the authors of the federalist and anti-federalist papers.

[iv] We will treat referendums as similar to legislation for the purposes of this short course.

[v]Liberalism In general, the belief that it is the aim of politics to preserve individual rights and to maximize freedom of choice.” Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan, Third edition 2009.

[vi] “The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government.” Federalist 57.

[vii] We consider our Constitution’s framers to include many great people who not only helped create our republic but who also helped to improve it over time – even in our own time.  Many of these people were imperfect, as we all are, but their personal failings should not take away from the important contributions they made.

[viii] A few countries make voting in elections mandatory although only a few enforce that rule.

[ix] Some countries, such as Australia and Mexico, attempt to make election voting compulsory. See https://www.idea.int/data-tools/data/voter-turnout/compulsory-voting

[x] Many states have restrictions that deny convicted felons the right to vote or run for office even after their prison sentences have been completed.

[xi] See Ginsberg, T. & Huq, A. (2018). How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, pp. 97, 143, 183, and 212.

[xii] See Schneider, J. (2005). Minority rights and Senate procedures. Congressional Research Service.

[xiii] See Weberg, B. (2017). State legislative policy-making in an age of political polarization. Center for Legislative Strengthening, National Conference of State Legislatures.

[xiv] Murtin, F., Fleischer, L., Siegerink, V., Aassve, A., Algan, Y., Boarini, R., González, S. (2018). Trust and its determinants: Evidence from the Trustlab experiment. OECD Statistics Working Papers, 2018/02.

[xv] Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. A. (2012). Why nations fail: The origins of power, prosperity, and poverty. Crown Business.

[xvi] Norris, P. (2018). Do perceptions of electoral malpractice undermine democratic satisfaction? The US in comparative perspective. International Political Science Review, 1-18.

[xvii] Rothstein, B. (2009). Creating political legitimacy: electoral democracy versus quality of government. American Behavioral Scientist, 53(3), 311-330.

[xviii] Murtin, F., Fleischer, L., Siegerink, V., Aassve, A., Algan, Y., Boarini, R., González, S. (2018). Trust and its determinants: Evidence from the Trustlab experiment. OECD Statistics Working Papers, 2018/02.

[xix] Rothstein, B. (2009). Creating political legitimacy: electoral democracy versus quality of government. American Behavioral Scientist, 53(3), 311-330.

[xx] Munoz, J. (2017). Political trust and multi-level government. In S. Zmerli & T. van der Meer (Eds.), The handbook of political trust (pp. 69-88). Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.

[xxi] In Chapter 3 of The Oxford Handbook of Social and Political Trust.

[xxii] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%9308_Kenyan_crisis

[xxiii] Hardin, R. (1999). Do we want trust in government?

[xxiv] Warren, M. (2017). What kind of trust does a democracy need? Trust from the perspective of democratic theory. See in particular the concept of “trust warrants.”

[xxv] Cook, N. (2011). Côte d’Ivoire Post-Gbagbo: Crisis Recovery.

[xxvi] Ottaway, M. (1998). Angola’s failed elections. Post-conflict elections, democratization, and international assistance.

[xxvii] See Weberg, B. (2017). State legislative policy-making in an age of political polarization. Center for Legislative Strengthening, National Conference of State Legislatures.

[xxviii] Carnegie Moscow Center (2018). The House that Lukashenko Built. https://carnegie.ru/2018/04/12/house-that-lukashenko-built-foundation-evolution-and-future-of-belarusian-regime-pub-76059#_edn2

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