I’m Sorry, We Just Don’t Trust You

As discussed in my last post, Congress’ approval rating is at an all time low among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Senator Michael Bennet (D- Colo.) even went so far as to create a chart showing how Congress is less popular than the BP oil spill, lawyers, and Nixon during Watergate.

While some will argue these abysmal approval numbers may be the result of a slow economy and a lackluster record on Congress’ part, single events in recent history cannot tell the whole story. In fact, while there appear to be causal links between public distrust and such scandals as Watergate and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, many scholars don’t attribute these factors to the general decline in political support over the last half-century. Rather, this trend of doubt and disgust can be linked to an overall global shift in public perception toward government, as Russell J. Dalton argues in his paper “The Social Transformation of Trust in Government.” His research found that cynicism is spreading in nearly every advanced industrialized democracy, a trend that contradicts the idea that events unique to America can explain the decline.

Perhaps most interesting are Dalton’s findings showing how skepticism toward politics has grown most rapidly among the young and more educated. The conventional view of public trust held that more affluence and education lead to more supportive views of the political process, because these upper classes benefited from social and political systems. However, Ronald Inglehart, political scientist at the University of Michigan, has made the case that young and more educated Americans have a greater concern for “new quality of life issues,” such as the environment and women’s rights, which put them at odds with the major political parties and government’s priorities. Furthermore, the young and educated more often lean toward more direct involvement in decisions affecting their lives, desiring participatory democracy over the representative form. Dalton notes that this demographic represents a “new style of politics… represented by less deference to authority, more assertive styles of action, and higher expectations for the democratic process” (p. 149). Citing the work of Hans-Dieter Klingemann and others, Dalton suggests that we are witnessing the emergence of a group called “dissatisfied democrats,” or individuals who believe in democratic ideals but who are skeptical of contemporary democracies’ abilities to support these ideals. This “new civic culture,” as he calls it, is fundamentally different than that of the past.

This may seem obvious to us, as we have already seen the above descriptions used to describe such movements as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Not to mention expectations for a politician have never been higher than with the election of Barack Obama. Contradictory to conventional wisdom, however, democratic reforms may not be enough to quell this generational discontent. Using Sweden as an example, Dalton argues that while the country developed a model of social democracy that many other countries within Europe sought to emulate, Swedes’ skepticism toward their democratic process became progressively worse. Japan and New Zealand are also cited as countries where political reform did not have a long-term mitigating effect on the decline of citizen trust.

However, it is important to keep in mind, as Dalton stresses, that such reforms should be judged by their “ability to improve the democratic process, not to change citizens’ negative images of government” (p. 150). Politicians may just have to get used to the idea that the public is suspicious of their motivations and doubtful of government’s ability to represent their best interests. Whether this fact will lead to revolutionary strides in participatory democracy or just a lot of one-term politicians, is yet to be seen. What is clear, however, is that public distrust is here to stay.

Brendan Kirwin

Brendan is a former CCT Graduate Student.