More on Trust in Government and Mark Lilla

Jun 6 '10

One of our regular and more thoughtful commenters, LFC, writes in response to my earlier post:

bq. You say there has been “no secular decline in trust in govt. It waxes and wanes with economic growth.”

bq. Yet your own graph, if I am reading it correctly, does not support this assertion. The year 1958 was a mild recession year, I seem to recall reading somewhere, yet trust in govt, acc. to your graph, was just below 80 percent. It never gets up to that level again, even in the boom years of the 90s. Thus your own graph suggests there has been a decline, albeit not as sharp as Lilla and others suggest, in trust in govt.

bq. I read Lilla’s piece quickly a while ago, and I nodded at his line about the 65 War on Poverty. It is difficult to imagine a comparable response now, and your reference to the the health care question doesn’t really rebut this convincingly.

bq. Lilla overdraws the picture, but to suggest that there has been no change in public attitudes toward government in the past 60 years — well, I’m not quite ready to sign on to that assertion. For one thing, it implies that the period conventionally dubbed the 60s (ie. c.1964-c.1973) had no lasting effects on public attitudes toward govt. Is that true? Can it possibly be the case that the Vietnam War and Watergate had no lasting effect on public attitudes? That from this standpoint they might as well never have happened? I find that a little hard to believe.

I am correct to say that there has been no “secular decline” — in the dictionary definition sense of “secular” as meaning “of or relating to a long term of indefinite duration.”

But LFC is correct about 1958: my earlier graph in this post shows that the economy was weak, but trust was unnaturally high. Indeed, many of the data points in the 1960s are “above” the regression line in that graph, suggesting that trust was higher than expected based on the relationship between trust and the economy over the entire period.

But I don’t think that the 1990s are the exception that LFC suggests. In 1992, 1996, and 2000, the economy grew and trust increased, but trust was not much lower than expected, give the level of growth. This is especially true in 2000.

Does the relationship between trust and the economy imply that the Vietnam War and Watergate were irrelevant? Not necessarily, although it’s somewhat difficult sort out their effects from that of the economy. For example, consider the decline in trust in government between 1964 and 1974, a period that largely spans both events. During this period, with the exception of 1972, the economy grew at progressively lower and lower rates in each successive election year (when the surveys from which the trust data come were conducted). That said, some evidence suggests that Watergate still mattered. Luke Keele’s analysis (pdf) of the period from 1970-2000 suggests that Watergate pulled down trust by about 2 points, over and above the effects of the economy and other variables. The same may be true of the Vietnam War.

The thrust of Lilla’s argument and LFC’s comment is that today is different than yesterday (although, to be sure, LFC thinks Lilla overstates things). That is, the nature of trust in government is qualitatively different now than in the 1950s or early 1960s — and that events like the Vietnam War and Watergate are possibly to blame. I tend to react against this narrative because it typically stops there and makes it seem as if we used to live in some Eden but have fallen from grace. I am more impressed by how much trust simply appears to follow the economy and thus will ebb and flow over time. I am also a little cautious simply because we don’t have any similar measures of trust before 1958; perhaps trust was much lower before then and the 1950s and early 1960s were unusual.

For all these reasons, I remain skeptical of Lilla’s argument, but, with more data, LFC’s point may be confirmed: even with comparable levels of economic growth, trust is stubbornly lower than it was in this earlier period. Indeed, Keele believes that the broader decline in social capital — which he finds is strongly related to trends in trust — may ultimately be the culprit:

bq. Scholars have long debated what caused the slide in trust from the 1950’s to today. Many explanations have been offered but all have been found wanting. Social capital provides the best evidence yet. First, it declined over the same period. Second, the evidence, here, demonstrates that social capital exerts a powerful effect on trust. So while poor government performance undoubtedly contributed to the slide, the loss of social capital must have been decisive. The slide in social capital also explains why trust has never rebounded. Without some resurgence in social capital, especially civic engagement, we cannot expect trust in government to return to its previous levels.

Time will tell. In the meantime, I’ll continue to emphasize that political trust goes both up and down over time, and that these trends are strongly tied to the economy. I do this not because that’s the end of the story but because these are two basic facts that conventional wisdom — a version of which Lilla presents — fails to recognize.