What Will Make People Trust Goverment Again?

Barack Obama thinks it’s restrictions on lobbyists and more openness:

We face a deficit of trust—deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap, we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to end the outsized influence of lobbyists, to do our work openly, to give our people the government they deserve.

David Brooks thinks it’s Barack Obama:

We can spend the next few years engaging in kabuki bipartisanship, in which each party puts on pseudo-events to show that the other party is rigid and rotten, or somebody can break the mold. We can spend the next three or seven years squabbling about the shrinking puddle of discretionary spending, or somebody can break out of the fiscal vise.
It would be an incredible legacy: Barack Obama restored America’s faith in its own institutions.

These prescriptions miss the point. It’s not special interests and partisanship that have made Americans lose their faith in government. In fact, nothing has been permanently lost: over the past 30 years, Americans have gained, lost, re-gained, and “re-lost” faith in government. Here is the trend in one indicator from the American National Election Studies. The survey question is:

How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right, just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?

“None of the time” was accepted as a volunteered response, and I include those who did so in the graph below. For the sake of argument, consider a “trusting” response to include “just about always” and “most of the time.”


The secular decline in trust in government stopped in 1980. Trust increased and then decreased during the 1980s. Then it increased sharply in the 1990s, rising to levels not seen since the mid-1960s. It peaked in 2002 and declined again thereafter. Another measure of trust that combines this and other survey questions shows a similar trend.

It is difficult to make these ups and downs conform to a narrative about partisanship or special interests. Partisan polarization in Congress has been increasing consistently over this period. I can’t imagine that special interests or lobbyists or their ilk suddenly had less influence in the mid-1980s or 1990s.

What drives the trend in political trust? By and large, it is the economy. People trust government when times are good. They don’t trust it when times are bad. For the presidential election years from 1964-2008, I merged the trust measure with the change in per capita disposable income, courtesy of Douglas Hibbs. Here is the relationship between trust and the economy:


The relationship is striking. The economy explains about 75% of the variance in trust. If you delete 1964, which looks like a potential outlier, the economy still explains 73% of the variance.

Of course the economy is not the only important factor. But it gets far less attention than it deserves when the hand-wringing begins. So, sure, perhaps we can and should tinker with the political process. Clip lobbyists’ wings. Get leaders to make nicey-nicey with the opposite party. But the process is less important than outcomes. More people will trust the government again when times are good, even if government ain’t.

9 Responses to What Will Make People Trust Goverment Again?

  1. Scott McClurg February 15, 2010 at 7:23 am #

    One of the striking things to me about this graph is that all of the post-1972 (Watergate) observations are at the bottom end of the graph. When combined with the first graph, it does suggest that the underlying process changed at some point.

    Also, does it look different if you measure change in trust, as opposed to percent trusting?

  2. David Carlton February 15, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    There’s also pronounced heteroskedasticity displayed in the resulting scatterplot; how does that affect our confidence in the coefficients?

  3. John Sides February 15, 2010 at 7:21 pm #

    Scott: I also see that a number of the post-Watergate data point are pretty close to the fit line, suggesting that the underlying process may be fairly robust.

    There is a relationship between changes in trust and the economy, but it is not nearly as strong.

    David: Good observation. Using “robust” standard errors doesn’t change the conclusion. The t-statistic on the associated regression coefficient is 5.44 if one uses traditional standard errors and 4.31 if one uses robust standard errors.

  4. Dan February 15, 2010 at 11:46 pm #

    1984 falls well below the line. I guess a lot of people read that book in high school.

  5. AFS February 17, 2010 at 12:49 pm #

    It would be interesting to cross reference this graph with the increase in media communications and media availability. In other words as the amount of information in the world becomes more publicly available, how does it compare with the trsut graph?

  6. Nick Booth February 18, 2010 at 4:16 am #

    Perhaps we are more tolerant of the nature of politics when government does not appear to be placing to great a burden on us.

    So could this really be plotting our tolerance – not trust – of government?

  7. Richard Warren February 18, 2010 at 9:18 am #

    David Carlton had a good point, but the correlation around the regression was very tight only up to the 40% trust value. Increasingly above that level, David’s observation comes into play leaving me to wonder if we’re not looking at a specification error: we’re overlooking a variable which would argue against the economy IV being the primary cause of trust variability.

  8. david clark February 19, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    I’d point out the levels of trust followed a clear historical news flow of events where the government was demonstrably dishonest with the public during eras of falling trust. Notice trust falls during the 1964-72 Viet Nam War era, the 1972-74 Watergate era, the subsequent investigations of the CIA FBI et al. era circa 1975-1980, and again after the 1986 Iran Contra Affair era, and again following the 1994 post Iraq Bush Era. All eras of clear govermental mendacity. I agree that a bad economy contributed to bad feelings in the late 1976 and 1980, as well as 1992.
    Certainly money flow is always part of the mood.

    Conversely, the mood improved during eras of a perceived competent forthright government during the 1980-86 Reagan era, and the Clinton 1992-2000 era and first 2 years 2002-02 of Bush II.


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