The Partisan Trust Gap

by John Sides on April 14, 2011 · 7 comments

in Public opinion

The following is a guest post by Mike Sances:

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The causes of low trust in government have been a recurring topic of discussion on The Monkey Cage. Which explanation is right is key to any prescriptions for increasing confidence in our political institutions. If it’s about a policy disconnect, perhaps major reforms will be needed to decrease the influence of interest groups. It If it’s about deeply held feelings of alienation, then maybe what is needed is a massive educational campaign about the virtues of American government. If it’s the economy, then maybe we can just sit back and wait for the economy to grow again.

The concern about low trust in government is not new, and neither is this debate. In a classic exchange in a 1974 issue of the American Political Science Review, Arthur Miller and Jack Citrin debated why trust in government had declined so sharply in the late 60s and early 70s, and what would make Americans trust government again. Miller argued that the decline was about policy dissatisfaction: Americans were turned off by centrist policies, and wanted something less blasé. Only liberal, activist government moving aggressively to tackle big social problems would reverse the decline in trust.

Citrin was unconvinced, and countered that cynicism was not monolithic. Instead, Citrin argued there were three types of political cynics: “ritualistic” cynics, who just give cynical survey responses to conform to social norms of skepticism; “partisan” cynics, who just don’t like the current officeholders; and “alienated” cynics, who are genuinely turned off from government. Citrin couldn’t identify the proportions of each type exactly. But by showing that Democrats were more trusting of government under Johnson, and that Republicans were more trusting of government once Nixon came into office, Citrin demonstrated that there was indeed a nontrivial amount of partisan cynics in the electorate. But he concluded that what would ultimately raise trust was a booming economy: “results” in his words, rather “than the adoption of some particular program or ideological orientation.” As John Sides has shown, Citrin’s prediction had a good deal of truth to it. However, it turns out his insight about “partisan cynics” was just as prescient.

Since the trust in government question was first asked in the late 50s, it has always been the case that members of the president’s party say they are more trusting of the federal government—an effect that is only getting bigger over time. Below, I plot the proportion of respondents saying they trust the government “always” or “most of the time,” over time. I use the same Pew data from John’s earlier posts, but I here disaggregate responses by party identification (as, in fact, anyone can do at that Pew web page). D’s and R’s indicate proportions from individual polls in the Pew dataset, and the vertical dotted lines indicate a change in the party occupying the White House.

There has always been a “trust gap” between members of the president’s party and the opposition. While members of both parties became less trusting from the 60s and 70s, Republicans’ trust was strikingly high under presidents Reagan and Bush II. And while Republicans’ trust also fell under Nixon, it did so at a slower rate than among Democrats. This same pattern of “catching up” by Republicans can be seen in Bush II’s second term.

What also stands out is that the gap between partisans is getting bigger. In the figure below, I take the absolute difference between the proportion of each group of partisans who say they are trusting always or most of the time, and plot it across time. The points are individual polls, and the red line is a lowess fit.

This figure confirms the earlier figure: there is always a trust gap, and it is getting bigger. In 1958 it was about 8 points. In the 80s, it got as high as 22. Under Bush II, it peaked at 35 points. And under Obama, it’s still considerably high, in the low 20s in the most recent data.

So, what will make people trust government again? The numbers suggest that, in addition to a booming economy, having some political power also helps. Why this is the case, and increasingly so, is surely an interesting question. But it’s one we won’t be able to answer until we stop pining for the “good old days,” when trust was universally high.

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