Welcome back! The first part of this short course focused on how the framers designed the Constitution in a way that allowed them to get past more than a few issues of substantial distrust. Their solution, liberal republicanism, involved several essential foundational blocks: (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. Voters soon added good policy outcomes as a sixth building block. These six building blocks earned the framers enough trust from each of the thirteen colonies to support the new Constitution’s ratification.
Unfortunately, shortly after the Constitution was ratified, some politicians started pushing against the new system they had created to win their political contests. Gaps have opened up between how things were supposed to work and how they actually work. Those gaps and their impact on our trust and distrust are the focus of this second half of Political Trust & Distrust.
Trust in the USA Over Time
This section will explore several aspects of the six foundational blocks of liberal republicanism as they relate to our lives today. We start with measures of two kinds of trust, generalized social trust, and political trust, noting that both have been on gradual downward trends. From there, we explore some of the gaps that have opened up between how things ought to be, in accord with the spirit of the Constitution, and how things actually are. These gaps may be contributing to some of the erosions in trust.
Generalized social trust is a belief that most people can be trusted to do something in our interest. Widespread generalized social trust makes everything about governance easier.[i] Countries where people are satisfied with their democracies tend to have relatively high levels of generalized trust.[ii] Why? Collaborating or compromising on legislation is easier when lawmakers and citizens share a high level of generalized trust. Similarly, it is easier for citizens with generalized social trust to discuss politics without worrying about being labeled as an enemy or traitor over a disagreement. Instead, politics becomes less polarized and more like a productive competition of ideas.[iii]
“We want to fight, and I want to fight, but we will be respectful … That doesn’t mean you have to reduce your ferocity. It’s just got to be respectful.”
– Senator John McCain
Generalized social trust grows when government institutions reduce our risks. One way this happens is by managing conflict through elections and legislative debate rather than violence. Good policing is another. If the police do a good job of patrolling in an even-handed, impartial manner, then we can trust that most people will not steal from us. We can trust most government officials are not corrupt if our federal and state Attorneys-General do their jobs well. We can trust that we will not get food poisoning from anything we buy if our regulatory agencies do a good job.
Our inaccurate expectations reduce social trust. Most of us expect others around us to be less trustworthy than they actually are. For example, in one famous study, “lost” wallets were returned three times more often than expected.[iv] In addition, it seems that our political opposites are actually much more trusting of us than we expect them to be.[v] There is also evidence that our political opposites are actually less “opposite” than we expect.[vi]
Some sources have a vested interest in telling us how bad the other side is. Many of us misunderstand the other side because we listen to sources who have a vested interest in dividing us. These sources can include some of our political leaders who attract followers based on aggrieved identities. It can include many members of the media, mainstream and otherwise, who know controversy brings them attention.
One way to get past our polarized distrust is to directly know the people around us better. We can build up our nation’s stock of generalized social trust by building good relations with our neighbors, especially those who are different from us.[vii] We can get to know them and earn their trust. We can contribute to our communities. We should always treat everyone well with respect and fairness – in person and online.
Application: Which do you think has the biggest potential to reduce political polarization: building bridges between the two sides or making the neutral territory bigger? Could the two reinforce each other?
Social trust is undermined by low incomes and high inequality.[viii] In general, those with wealth and power will be fearful of the tyranny of mobs. Conversely, those without power and wealth will fear the tyranny of princes. The problem can be difficult to solve when people distrust the government to invest well and to redistribute fairly to those who need help the most.[ix]
Generalized social trust in the U.S. has been comparatively high but falling. (Figure 1.) According to data from the U.S. General Social Survey, almost 46 percent of people surveyed in 1972 answered that most people can be trusted. That share fell to 31.5 percent by 2018. Of 77 countries measured between 2017 and 2020, only 16 countries had higher levels of generalized social trust.[x] Of those, all but 3 are high-income countries.
Political trust is the belief that various government institutions will act in our interest fairly and impartially. Some of the relevant institutions include the Constitution and the laws of the land, the political parties, Congress and the state legislatures, the offices of the president and the state governors, the federal and state courts, and the police.
In most countries, impartial institutions are trusted the most. Thus, offices of public administration, the courts, and the police tend to be more trusted than political parties or legislatures.[xi] When an institution becomes politicized, as is the case for some police departments in the U.S., then it will attract less trust or even distrust.
Application: There is substantial evidence that the law is not equally applied for people of color and for the poor in many parts of the country. How would that discrepancy affect the degree of trust people of color feel for the police and the criminal courts?
Politicizing the military or police is dangerous. Opposition parties and minorities are at risk when armed forces or police are uniformly politicized in favor of a majority party. In such cases, there is deep distrust between government forces and portions of the citizenry. In Venezuela, for example, the armed forces strongly and publicly support the government. Their support includes the use of force against protestors.[xii] Civil war becomes a possibility when distrust arises within the armed forces. That distrust is the natural result of split loyalties, ethnicities, or ideologies. For example, in Nigeria, ethnic tensions in the military led to a 1966 coup by one faction, and counter-coup by another faction, which was followed by a massacre and then a civil war accompanied by famine.[xiii]
Application: Our national guard units are jointly controlled by our state governors and by the president.[xiv] Suppose a president elected from one party requested troops to respond to a domestic emergency and governors from the opposition party refused to help? How would military neutrality be affected? How would your answer change if there was doubt about the nature of the alleged emergency?
Political trust in the federal government has been gradually falling on average, with ups and downs along the way. The last measurement by the Pew Research Center in 2019 was the lowest since measurements began in 1958. (Figure 1.) By comparison, data from the World Values Survey (Wave 7) show that 44 of 77 countries surveyed (more than half) had higher levels of political trust in their national governments than the U.S. did in 2017. Both social and political trust tend to be highest in countries where most people wealthy, well-educated, and satisfied with their lives.[xv]
The decline in political trust can be narrowed down to the federal legislative and executive branches. Data from Gallup show that our trust in the federal judicial branch and in our state and local governments has increased slightly since 1972.[xvi] (Figure 2.) In the next section, we explore how the federal government may have reduced trust.
Gaps Between Expectations and Reality[xvii]
At CFFAD, we believe that gaps between how our liberal republican democracy ought to work, and how it actually works, are among the major causes of our declining political trust.[xviii] These gaps may come from intended and unintended erosions of the institutions of liberal-republicanism. Leaders with autocratic tendencies are constantly on the lookout for ways to sabotage the institutions that hold them back while strengthening those that will entrench them into permanent power and wealth.[xix] In this section, we review gaps in how political competition is constrained, in accountability between branches of government, how power is limited, and the maintenance of political and civil rights. We conclude with a review of trends in several aspects of liberal, republican democracy as measured by Freedom House.
Survey data suggest that many Americans see large gaps between the way things should be and how they are. Table 1 shows a comparison between the importance Americans placed on the key principles discussed above and how well the system delivered on those principles in 2018 and 2020. While perceptions of importance and outcomes are not directly comparable, it is reasonable to expect the most important principals to be attended to better than the least.
There were two high-points:
- Americans expected the military to remain politically neutral, and they believed it had;
- people expected to be able to protest peacefully, and most they believed they could in 2018. By 2020, fewer people thought so, and, worryingly, few thought peaceful protest was important.
There were also some serious gaps:
- Free and fair political competition was in doubt, particularly as regards the impact of big money.
- Accountability was in doubt, with large gaps shown for government transparency and the likelihood that official misconduct would be punished.
The traffic light is flashing yellow for all of the other indicators.
- Particular attention should be paid to rights and freedoms – the share of people who think their rights and freedoms are in good shape fell markedly between 2018 and 2020.
Note: The results in Tables 1 and 2 are averages. Breaking the data down by income, race, and other indicators suggest that those who benefit the most also tend to trust the most.
Perceptions of public service delivery indicate moderately acceptable performance with slippages in several categories. Table 2 shows Americans’ service delivery priorities in 2015 and 2020 and compares these to their perceptions of how well those services were provided. In 2015, most people believed the government performed well concerning natural disaster responses, protecting against terrorism, and ensuring safe food and medicines. The government got very low marks for its management of the immigration system. By 2020, many people gave the government lower marks in several categories, including fighting terrorism, workplace standards, protecting the environment, and accessing healthcare. On the positive side, they also thought there was mild improvement in immigration management. All other categories earned a flashing yellow light. A new category, effectiveness in handling public health threats, was introduced in 2020 in response to the COVID19 pandemic. Seventy-eight percent of respondents thought the government should play a major role in this regard. Only 42 percent thought the government was doing a good job. Thus, overall, there were many categories with large gaps between expectations and actual outcomes.
Overall, Tables 1 and 2 are not good news. Both show only a few areas where our expectations have been well met. There is some emerging evidence that our trust and mistrust might respond to different forces.[xx] Our political distrust is increased most by increased threats to our interests. Table 1 suggests several problem areas may be threatening to the interests of many Americans. These include weakened political and civil rights, unfair election advantages from big money, and government officials who are hard to hold accountable. Conversely, our political trust is eroded most by competency failures – including competency in public service delivery. Table 2 suggests that there are several worsening issues in that regard.
Most people gave lower average scores to how well democratic principals were upheld than they gave to public service delivery. Are other measures of democracy eroding as well? We explore that next.
Several elements of U.S. liberal-republicanism have been eroded in the years between 2009 and 2019. Freedom House provides an annual survey of Freedom in the World that measures seven categories relevant to liberal republicanism. Table 3 shows that four of seven Freedom House categories have slipped: the rule of law (-19 percentage points), government responsiveness and accountability (-17 percentage points), pluralism and participation (-12 percentage points), and election procedures (-9 percentage points). The slippage in the rule of law is especially worrying because it was already 12 percentage points below the ideal maximum in 2009.[xxi] Thus far, our system has preserved high scores for personal freedoms and rights. Scores for freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and organization also remain high but showed some wobbling in previous years.
The US ranking in the world is slipping.[xxii] Out of 209 countries and territories evaluated in 2009, 31 had a higher Freedom House score than the United States. By 2019, 51 countries and territories had a higher Freedom House score than the United States. The slippages are especially worrisome regarding election procedures, pluralism, government responsiveness, freedom of assembly, and the rule of law. Thus far, the U.S. remains a world leader in freedom of expression and personal freedoms.
Overall, our review suggests that the quality of our liberal, republican democracy is falling and might also be driving down our social and political trust. That decline could have serious consequences. Some political scientists and historians believe political regimes become vulnerable to attack or breaking down when political trust collapses.[xxiii] What can ordinary American citizens do to improve our system? That is the subject of the next section.
Ordinary Citizens Can Help
The Constitution and laws have not been sufficient by themselves to stop political leaders from undermining our liberal, republican democracy. Thus far, the Supreme Court has generally done a good job of stopping unconstitutional behavior. Even so, it can make mistakes. The “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy versus Ferguson (1896) that effectively legalized racial discrimination for many decades is the most obvious example. Supreme Courts can also become politicized, as they recently have in Venezuela and Poland. It can happen here too – President Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court in 1937. Moreover, leaders worldwide have found ways to ignore their courts and legislatures or at least bend them to their will.
Power-hungry politicians and impulsive leaders will be deterred only when they know the citizens will be united in holding them to agreed constitutional principals. Thus, each citizen (and each government official) can play an important role in holding the line against entrenchment and sabotage. Here are a few actions any citizen can take:
- Identify a “line in the sand” that will trigger your active defense of constitutional principals.
- Our rights to assemble, speak, and vote without coercion or repression should be especially important when thinking about where to place your line. The same should be true for elected officials and candidates for election.
- Be willing to take action, even when your side might benefit from crossing that line in the sand. Do this because you know someday that kind of cheating or worse will be turned against your side. Never give your leaders more power than you would entrust to your opponents.
- Your defense might start with elections but might include other tools such as referendums, lobbying, contributions to relevant non-partisan organizations, peaceful marches, and non-violent protests.
- Proactively find allies willing to help defend each of the six constitutional principals.
- If you are busy with life’s obligations, you may want to support one of the many non-partisan organizations that carry on such work.
- Engage in vigilant mistrust, particularly of politicians who seem more willing to ignore or subvert the system rather than engage in free and fair political competition.
Here are some more actions ordinary citizens can take in defense of our Republic:
- Support high-quality civic education, inside and outside our schools, through the college years and beyond.
- Make sure you understand what the government’s key offices are supposed to do and why and know who you can trust to monitor their performance.
- Build up our nation’s stock of generalized social trust by building good relations with your neighbors, especially those who are different from you,[xxiv] and contributing to the community around you. Always treat everyone well with respect and fairness – in person and online.
- Vote for candidates who are knowledgeable, wise, responsive to citizens’ needs, responsive to the common interest, and advance good policy options.
Congratulations! You have made it to the end of this short course. We hope you found it useful and thought-provoking. Here is a summary of the key points:
Generalized social trust is a belief that most people can be trusted to do something in our interest or, at least, not to do anything against our interests. Widespread generalized social trust makes everything about governance easier. Collaborating or compromising on legislation is easier when lawmakers and citizens share a high level of generalized trust. Similarly, it is easier for citizens with generalized trust to discuss politics without worrying about being labeled as an enemy or traitor over a disagreement. Instead, politics becomes a productive competition of ideas. Countries with very high levels of generalized social trust tend to have well-established, well-functioning democracies. Generalized trust in the U.S. has been comparatively high but falling.
Political trust is the belief that various government institutions will consistently act in our interest fairly and impartially. Many political scientists and historians believe political regimes become vulnerable to attack or collapse when political trust collapses. Political trust in the federal government in 2019 was the lowest since measurements began in 1958. The decline in political trust can be narrowed down mainly to the federal legislative and executive branches.
Gaps between how our liberal republican democracy ought to work and how it is actually working are likely among the major causes of our declining trust in government. These gaps may come from intended and unintended erosions of the institutions of liberal-republicanism. Leaders with autocratic tendencies are constantly on the lookout for ways to sabotage the institutions that hold them back while strengthening those that will entrench them into permanent power and wealth.
Overall, there is evidence that our political trust may have been eroded by weakening public service delivery. Our political distrust may have been increased by weakened political and civil rights, unfair election advantages from big money, and problems holding government officials accountable. This finding is supported by other measures of democracy that have also eroded. Four of seven Freedom House categories have slipped between 2009 and 2019. The US ranking in the world is slipping too. Out of 209 countries and territories evaluated in 2009, 31 had a higher Freedom House score than the United States. By 2019, 51 countries and territories had a higher Freedom House score than the United States. This slippage might also be driving down our levels of social and political trust.
The Constitution and laws have not been sufficient by themselves to constrain political leaders from undermining our liberal, republican democracy. Each citizen (and each government official) can play an important role in holding the line against political entrenchment and sabotage. An excellent place to start is by identifying a “line in the sand” that will trigger your active defense of constitutional principals and finding allies and organizations to help you in that defense. Having drawn your line, engage in vigilant mistrust, particularly of politicians who seem more willing to ignore or subvert the system rather than engage in free and fair political competition. Never give your leaders more power than you would entrust to your opponents.
There are many other ways to help keep our Republic. Support high-quality civic education, inside and outside our schools, through the college years and beyond. Make sure you understand what the government’s key offices are supposed to do and why and know who you can trust to monitor their performance. Build up good relations with your neighbors, especially those not like you; contribute to your communities; and treat everyone with respect and fairness, in person and online.
— END —
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© Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy
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.
Associate Director, Democracy and Governance Program
Professor of Comparative Politics, Emeritus
University of Southampton
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] The Oxford Handbook of Social and Political Trust, p. 37, p. 49, and p. 84.
[ii] Zmerli, S., & Newton, K. (2008). Social trust and attitudes toward democracy.
[iii] Some scholars refer to this as “agonism” as opposed to “antagonism.”
[iv] Helliwell, Huang, and Wang (2018), p. 410.
[v] Moore-Berg, et al. (2020). Exaggerated meta-perceptions predict intergroup hostility between American political partisans.
[vi] Yudkin, et al. (2109). The Perceptions Gap: How False Impressions are Tearing Americans Apart.
[vii] Ulsaner (2012) observes that integrating people of different racialized or ethnic categories is not enough to build trust – one must form some sort of constructive relationship with them.
[viii] Newton, Stolle, and Zmerli (2018), pp. 47 and Helliwell, Huang, and Wang (2018), p. 413.
[x] Based on World Values Survey data.
[xi] Newton, Stolle, and Zmerli (2018), pp. 46.
[xii] Amnesty International. (2019). Venezuela.
[xiii] Metz, H. (1992). Area Handbook Series: Nigeria-A Country Study.
[xiv] NGAUS Factsheet: Understanding the Guard’s Duty Status.
[xv] Newton, Stolle, and Zmerli (2018), pp. 47-48.
[xvi] In general, and in most countries, people tend to trust non-partisan institutions the most – while trusting congress (or parliaments) and political parties the least. See the Oxford Handbook of Social and Political Trust, pp. 77-78.
[xvii] Our exploration of gaps was inspired by the ideas of democratic deficits found in Hetherington (2005) who defines political trust as “how positively citizens perceive government’s performance relative to their expectations,” Norris (2011), trust deficits found in Warren (2017), and by the work of the Pew Research Center.
[xviii] We are seeking comparable information from earlier years as a test of our hypothesis.
[xix] See Scheppele (2018). Autocratic Legalism.
[xx] Devine et al. (2020), p. 18.
[xxi] An examination of the Freedom House data shows a decline in due process in 2016, a reduction in judicial independence in 2017, and a decline in equal treatment by the law in 2019.
[xxii] Other sources such as the Economic Intelligence Unit or the Varieties of Democracy Project tell the same story, with only minor variations in timing and magnitudes.
[xxiii] Tilly (2007), for example, argues that countries de-democratize when people no longer trust a regime to serve their interests, and when they no longer trust a regime to keep them safe from their opponents. Mounk & Foa (2016) argue several republics are at risk due to falling political trust in the younger generations.
[xxiv] Ulsaner (2012) observes that integrating people of different racialized or ethnic categories is not enough to build trust – one must form some sort of relationship with them.