Trust in Tomorrow

Marc Hetherington, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism talked to Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about why Americans’ trust in government, as well as many other institutions, reached a new nadir in this decade and what it means for the future.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What do you consider to the “state of play” in regards to institutional trust in American life?

Marc Hetherington: It’s historically low right now. So there are two really important pieces to consider, especially in regards to trust in government. In some surveys, we have people responding to the federal government in a trusting way only in single digits. The classic survey question here is “How much of the time do you trust the government in Washington to do what is right?” If you answer “all of the time” or “most of the time,” that’s considered a trusting response. If you answer “some of the time” or “never” that’s considered an untrusting response. So in 2009 and especially 2010, the trusting responses were in the single digits.

To put that in perspective, when researchers first started asking this question in the 1950s and 60s, more than 70 percent of people gave a trusting response. It’s changed completely. If you want to find one measure of public opinion that has changed radically over the past 40 years, this is it. Even during Watergate the number was in the 40s. The lowest it ever got in the 20th century was around 20 percent in 1994. So to be under ten percent in certain polls in 2010 is really something. It’s unprecedented.

The second thing that is happening in views on trust and institutions is that they’re polarizing by party. There are a couple of misnomers when it comes to this issue. One is that Republicans trust government less all of the time. But that’s just not true. At least in the past, Republicans have trusted the government a little bit more than Democrats when there is a Republican president and a little bit less when there is a Democratic president. Until the last ten years, it was a very small difference either way.

But in the past decade, those numbers have significantly polarized by party. Now almost no Republicans trust the government under a Democratic administration. During the George W. Bush administration, and particularly near the end of the administration, almost no Democrats reported trusting the government — though more Democrats then than Republicans now. Meanwhile, in the middle of the Bush administration (2002 to 2004) you had more Republicans saying they trusted government than any time since the 1960s, including the entire presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: That’s what fascinating to me. You might imagine there would be a sort of accumulation of trust over the twelve consecutive years of Republican control.

Marc Hetherington: Republicans did express somewhat more trust than Democrats during that period. But Democrats’ overall level of trust in government has stayed more constant since it’s been studied. Everyone’s trust has deteriorated over time, but the Republicans have swung up and down much more wildly. They trust government much more when their guys are in and much less when the other guys are in.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What are the various theories as to why all of this has occurred?

Marc Hetherington: As far as trust in government, this is an area where my co-author Tom Rudolph and I have done a lot of work. When you think about how high trust in government was in the 1950s and 1960s, Tom and I have concluded that it must have been artificially high. Because this was the era when we first started taking these polls, it seems natural to assume that that level of trust is the normal state. But it might be that  some characteristics of the 50s and 60s were outside of the norm.

So there are several reasons to think that those numbers were abnormally high. The first thing to think about is when people think about the government, what do they man by “the government”? That could actually mean a lot of different things. So imagine that people think of “government” as the institutions that keep them safe, like the military and the police. Those parts of government are popular. People say they love the military and have said that for a long time.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Even today the military is among the more trusted institutions, isn’t it?

Marc Hetherington: It’s the most trusted institution by far. The General Social Survey asks about confidence in institutions every couple of years. Right now trust in the military is 15 percentage points higher than any other institution in public or private life. The only one that is even relatively close is the scientific community. But organized religion, not so much. The Supreme Court, which used to have very high levels of confidence, not so much.

So the key point is that in the 50s and 60s during the worst of the Cold War period, people were thinking about external threats all the time. You had the Cuban Missile Crisis and “Duck and Cover.” Since people like the parts of the government that handle that kind of stuff, trust was high.

The second big thing that seems to cause a lot of variation in trust is the economy. When the economy is doing poorly, political trust tends to go down, and when it is doing well trust tends to go up. So in the 50s and 60s, we had this post-WWII roaring economy with very few exceptions. But after that period was over, people tended to concentrate on aspects of government other than national security. At the same time, the national economy was sometimes strong and sometimes weak. We also had events like Watergate, Vietnam, and the hostage crisis in Iran. These seem to have contributed to the general erosion in trust over time.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Could you give me a sense of the various ways in which political scientists think about the decline in trust, as well as where you sit?

Marc Hetherington: Some people think that this deterioration in trust in government is of limited consequence. Since trust levels seem to recover when the people running the government change, the idea is that people view their distrust as a problem that can be solved. But other people think that this deterioration in trust contributes to our governing crisis. They say that the lack of trust makes it difficult for government to act even when things are really bad. One example of that might be the financial catastrophe that gripped the nation in 2008 and 2009. One could make an argument that many of the best alternatives were not even on the table in terms of fiscal policy. Many more options might have been on the table if people trusted government more.

As for where I sit in the debate, I would be closer to the camp that says this deterioration in trust has a big impact. My research with Tom Rudolph in particular suggests that once this trust is lost, it’s very difficult to recover.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Tell me more about that. You folks seem somewhat unique in that your work has explored how we actual govern under these conditions.

Marc Hetherington: The earliest work I did on this topic was a book called Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism. I started from the premise of saying that times had really changed between the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. Both of them were Southern Democrats with unique political skills. But one of them engineered the Great Society while the other gave us welfare reform, the V-chip, and things along those lines.

So the basic idea is that what liberal policies demand from some group of people in the electorate is some degree of sacrifice. If you’re wealthy, you may have to pay more in taxes. If you’re white, you might be disadvantaged directly or indirectly by affirmative action programs. If you don’t have kids in school, your taxes will still pay for other people’s kids to go to school. It makes sense that if you don’t trust people in Washington to govern competently or well, you won’t be ready to make those sacrifices.

Commentators say that there was a conservative wave that swept across the country starting with the Reagan presidency and continuing through the 1990s. But I find that there is actually very little evidence of that, because conservatives want the government to not be involved in all sorts of things. But in fact, what was really losing popularity were programs that required significant sacrifice by one group for another. The programs that benefit everyone, like Social Security or Medicare, remain popular. Almost nobody wants to get rid of them.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: This seems like a good quantitative explanation for the general political wisdom I perceive where I’m from in Eastern Kansas. I think there are all sorts of people who look at problems and say, “The government ought to do something!” But when you ask them if they actually trust the government to do what they’re proposing, they say, “No!” That seems like a more accurate picture than a sort of principled libertarian view.

Marc Hetherington: There has been a lot written lately about the supposed rising libertarian tide. But that tide has had decades and decades in which to show itself and it has never really happened. So I’m with you on your read there.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So I’d like to add some context to this story of declining political trust. How do you think declining trust in government relates to the decline in trust in other institutions?

Marc Hetherington: It’s part of a package of things. I don’t know if we could ever really say that one of those trends caused the other — they seem to be co-occurring. With the exception of the military and to some extent the scientific community, since the 1970s there has been a downturn in trust in almost everything, whether it’s clergy or lawyers or used car salesmen. We have a public that is much more skeptical of institutions. It’s not that there aren’t many people who love almost all of these institutions. But in general, people cast a skeptical eye.

The reasons for this happening have really vexed scholars over time. There is a book written in the 1980s called The Confidence Gap. It was written by Seymour Martin Lipset and William Schneider. It documented how these trends began to take hold in the 1970s and were in fact happening in many different countries. There has also been a marked deterioration in people’s overall trust in each other. The most important book on that is Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. The basic idea is that in the 50s we used to bowl in leagues with each other. Now more people bowl, but they do it by themselves.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Can you tell me what else we can learn by viewing the decline in trust in a comparative or global context?

Marc Hetherington: My general impression from reviewing article manuscripts over the years is that one of the global factors undermining trust in institutions is diversity. What I mean by that is the situation in which government tends to be seen by majority groups as doing the bidding of racial or ethnic minorities. Trust then declines among the majority groups. So one reason why trust declines in the U.S. in the 60s is that the federal government had gotten involved in problems of race in a big way. And there was a great deal of dissatisfaction with those policy outcomes.

So I think if you look at places facing bad economic times as well as immigration of minority groups — let’s say Turks moving into Germany — I think there is a sense that Germans who are not very happy about those Turks being there also tend to become distrustful of the government because it allowed this situation to occur. Because government is designed in many ways to provide programs for the less well-off, and because ethnic and religious minorities tend on average to be less well-off, many people in majority groups basically come to view government as something that does something for somebody else, not for them.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I’d like to return to the question of how you govern in this environment. How the heck do you get anything done?

Marc Hetherington: Let’s look at the last three years of the Obama administration. The fact is that not much has gotten done. What we’ve got right now is a deeply polarized group of political elites staunchly arrayed against each other. The only thing that could potentially change that is if the public nudged them in a different direction. Over decades of political science research, we’ve found that the public is capable of doing that if a new consensus emerges on an issue. Even the most conservative members of Congress would be likely to vote with the president on an issue if they saw a consensus emerging in their district supporting that position.

But when trust in government is so low, that kind of consensus almost never develops. We can demonstrate that you are much more likely to give the opposing party the leeway to try whatever it is they want to do if you believe in general that the government usually does what is right. Trust acts as a sort of reservoir of support. But enough people on the other side need to have that trust for that to work, and since almost no Republicans say they trust the government in general anymore, consensus on almost any issue is mathematically impossible.

So it’s not surprising to see a situation where something like health care reform can only pass through legislative maneuvering and that there were low levels of support for it. Interestingly, there actually were high levels of support for the idea at the beginning of the debate. But when trust in government is so low, it’s fairly easy for opponents to point out the various ways in which government will become involved in people’s lives and get support to drop fairly quickly.

The result, then, is what we’ve seen in the last two years of Obama’s first term and the first year of the second, which is the least productive Congress since they’ve been tracking data on congressional productivity. Nothing gets done. There is nothing at the popular level getting any member of the elite to do anything other than follow their worst partisan instincts.

I should add that one shouldn’t think of political trust as a commodity that can only be spent by the political left. I think the left disproportionately benefits from trust, but we have some evidence in the book that trust was a relevant factor in important policies from the Bush administration like the decision to go to war with Iraq. The Bush surveillance policies also benefited from the high Republican trust in government at that time. So it’s a commodity that can help both sides of the aisle accomplish their goals.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So where do you see this trend heading in the next ten years?

Marc Hetherington: This may surprise you, but I suspect that trust in government will actually be somewhat higher ten years from now. First of all, frankly, it can’t go any lower.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Right, that’s just math.

Marc Hetherington: Right. And I should say that it’s already a little higher than the low point in 2010. I don’t think it will be radically higher ten years from now, but I do think things will be somewhat different. First, we’ll see an increase in trust in government as a result of the improvement in the economy. Would that lead to levels of trust anywhere near the Great Society years? No — we’ve actually found in our work that trust goes down more when the economy is bad than it goes up when it is good. But a good economy would lead to some recovery of trust.

But there’s also something more subtle and potentially more important going on. Obama has actually been a pretty resolute supporter of an expanded role for government in people’s lives. Whether it’s the role he sees government playing in the economy or the financial system or health care, he’s made that case with greater consistency than any Democrat since the Johnson era. The dominant philosophy for a generation has been Ronald Reagan’s, which is that government is always part of the problem, not the solution. I think that Obama is gradually changing that. It will be interesting to see whether the Democrats who follow him are as consistent in arguing that there is a role for government in dealing with society’s problems.

Finally, younger people will play a role in the expansion of trust. Young people don’t express a whole lot of trust in government right now because the economy is relatively bad and they are bearing the brunt of it. However, they are a Democratic constituency and one that does not seem as concerned about the negative effects of government in society. You have to remember, this generation did not live through the various excesses of the Great Society programs. They don’t have as strong a theory of what is wrong with government. So I think we’re bound to see an uptick in political trust in the next ten years or so.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: That makes perfect sense to me. This sort of depresses me as a student of history, but I highly doubt that most young people today could express the causal links between, say, race riots and housing or between desegregation by bussing and dissatisfaction with government.

Marc Hetherington: Right, there’s no chance. I love to teach and I think my students are incredibly talented, but they would have no idea at all.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I’m not necessarily saying it’s a bad thing — psychologists will tell you that forgetting is as important for getting things done in our lives as remembering. But what seems really important is not the forgetting of the particulars, but the forgetting of the model of the conflict. For my youngest sisters, the idea that a bussing program would cause protests probably seems strange out of the box.

Marc Hetherington: Yes. And I think that even for people who lived through all that, something has changed. The most recent examples of serious excess that we have come from the banking sector, and government is really the only bulwark against that. It’s easy to forget that 20 or 30 years ago the common feeling was exactly the reverse, and government was perceived to be the thing that was out of control.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I’d like to know a little bit more about the nature of the new kind of political trust you see forming. Here’s what I mean. When a marriage goes through a horrible crisis like an affair, the couple typically finds ways of reinventing the marriage, even if it’s legally the same entity. So do you have any indication of the particular form that this new political trust might take? How might it be different from the trust of the 50s and 60s?

Marc Hetherington: That’s a great question. I think there’s definitely something there. I suspect that there will be a greater wariness to it. If you think of the public as the party that was cheated on in the marriage, they may be upset when the spouse gets home late, whereas before it might have taken lipstick on the collar to raise their concerns. Trust in government was relatively blind in the 50s and 60s; if it recovers as I predict, it would not be blind in the same way.

That greater wariness could actually be a very positive development in two ways. My sense is that demography will drive a slight leftward drift in policy over the next 20 years. The question will be what exactly people on the political right will want to do about that. My hope is that they will respond to this culture of increased but wary trust by thinking about what role they could actually play in policy formation. Maybe there would be a way to turn Democratic programs into programs that involve both sides. Because if they completely sit on the sidelines, they are probably going to end up with more liberal policy outcomes than if they worked with the left on crafting some of those outcomes. …

We talk a lot about the conflicts we have in Washington being ideological in nature. But they’re simply not. There’s an ideological component to them, but it’s mainly about choosing the best tactics to beat the other side. Many of the policies being pursued by the administration, whether it’s the individual mandate in Obamacare or cap-and-trade legislation on the environment, had their start as conservative, Heritage Foundation ideas. No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit started out as Democratic ideas, though not many Democrats voted for them.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I want to ask you a kind of weird question now. Let’s say we had this magical chamber where we could talk to the Founding Fathers about the state of American democracy every 50 years or so. So we hit the Civil War and we go tell them, “Hey guys, we’re sorry, this awful thing has happened.” You would imagine that many of them would say, “You know, actually, we were worried that something like that might happen.” Slavery was an issue they were already dealing with at the Constitutional Convention.

So I’m wondering if you had access to this magical chamber today what the Founding Fathers might make of our present situation with political trust. Is it among the range of possibilities they might have planned for? How might they have dealt with it?

Marc Hetherington: When it comes to trust in government specifically, I think they would find this situation highly familiar. When you think about what the Founding was all about, it was about low trust in institutions — they were the institutions of the British. The people who designed those institutions didn’t place a lot of trust in ordinary people. So I think the Founders actually would have been more shocked if you took them out of the chamber in the 1950s. They would have been dismayed by they low level of skepticism.

The other thing that complicates things… I don’t know if they would have been surprised by it, because the Founders were very concerned by factionalism, but since political parties were not yet fully on the scene, I think they would be surprised at the role parties play today. It would be anathema to them, especially when partisan organizations are on steroids.

I think they would also be somewhat dismayed by the way we think about public opinion. I don’t think they conceived of representatives as people who would necessarily spend all of their time listening to us. I don’t know if they would be having this conversation about the way the public perceives institutions.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Well, the technologies behind public opinion polling would also have been possible to imagine. The only way they could hold a poll was to go to the polls.

Marc Hetherington: But the key point is that the Founders put together a government designed to function in a low-trust environment. The fact that there is a lot of gridlock and not a lot of efficiency… those things are dismaying to us, but I don’t know if they would concern them all that much. I think the main thing that would concern them is that today gridlock is based on partisanship rather than disagreements over ideas.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Can you see any practices or institutions that exist now that you think will be more prevalent in the somewhat higher-trust environment of the future?

Marc Hetherington: Maybe I’m biased because I’m a college professor, but my hope is always in this upcoming generation of kids. I think they’re remarkable in many ways. As it relates to trust, they don’t have higher levels of trust in government right now, but they definitely have stronger social networks than in generations past. They’re also joiners in a way that my generation certainly wasn’t (I’m 45).

I think it’s interesting how they are… not apolitical, but sort of nonpolitical right now. The kind of good works they do is remarkable. They do a remarkable amount of volunteering for organizations on the left and right. They’re willing to enroll in the databases of those organizations. Because they are so eager to get directly involved in things, I hope that they will not play out many of the old battles of the past.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I agree that there is a “Why not?” attitude toward joining things in this generation that perhaps corresponds to the generation of the 40s and 50s. However, it seems important to observe that the nature of what it means to join something has changed almost completely.

Marc Hetherington: Right. They’re not physically getting together in the way that Putnam’s Bowling Alone would suggest. But at least they’re doing something. Even if their networks don’t resemble what we might expect, it’s hard to think that the outcomes won’t be positive.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.