A Matter of Trust

Examining trust over lifespans

Almost All the President's Men

Trust in politicians.

By Ken J. Rotenberg1

It was over 40 years ago that Watergate burst upon our TVs and other media—in the US and around the world. The sequence of events included: (1) the installation of bugging equipment at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington DC (May 28, 1971), (2) the publishing of the Pentagon Papers (June 13, 1971), (3) reports that the Attorney-General had a secret Republican fund used to finance widespread intelligence-gathering operations against the Democrats (Sept. 9th, 1972), and (3) the Senate Watergate hearings begin (May 17, 1973). After extensive and arduous media coverage, President Richard Nixon resigned on August 9th 1974. While the extent of the guilt of the president will continue to be debated, it is reasonable to say that that was a sad day for US politics. Research has indeed shown that there has been a decline in trust in US politicians and government from the 1960s (Hetherington & Rudolph, 2008). (We will use the terms politicians and government interchangeably in this Blog, although they are certainly differences between the two.)

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It is a global problem! It is misguided to blame the decline in trust in politicians simply on the events surrounding the Nixon administration. Other governments – even democratically elected ones -- have been involved in scandals from the 1960s onward. Researchers have confirmed that political trust has been declining since the mid-1960s in many democratic countries (Blind, 2006). This is  regarded as a global phenomenon (see Cheng et al. 2012). As insightfully stated by Mishler and Rose (1997), there is no government which ‘enjoys the absolute trust of its citizens’ (p.418).

If it was not almost all the President’s men (and the former President), then who or what is responsible for the decline in trust in politicians? A study by Hetherington and Rudolph (2008) helps provide some answers to this question. These authors carried out a time-series analysis from 1976-2006 of the factors that affected trust in politicians in the US (i.e., the belief that the government in Washington will do what is right). The authors found that trust in polticians increased when the public viewed international issues as vital (e.g., terrorism, national security, war, and the Middle East). When the public thought that there were problems with the economy (i.e., a period of depression) then trust in politicians decreased. The authors found that the effects of economic concern were asymmetric in that relatively few people regard the economy as good even in good times. As a result, the positive effects of a good economy on trust in politicians are relatively weak and therefore failed to offset the effects of bad economies. As a consequence there is a downward movement in trust in politicians across time. Consistent with Watergate though, Hetherington and Rudolph found that government scandals (e.g., the Clinton impeachment proceedings) predicted declines in trust in politicians. The effects were not as substantial, though, as the effects of economic and international issues on trust in politicians.

Does trust in politicians really matter? There is a continuing debate about the significance of trust in the government/politicians for the public (see Martin, 2010). Does low trust in politicians imply a lack of willingness to vote? Does low trust in politicians imply a lack of endorsement of democracy? Does low trust in politicians imply a willingness to protest? Although the findings are mixed, some studies do provide affirmative answers to these questions (see Martin, 2010). It has been found that trust in politicians is: (1) positively associated with positive attitudes towards democracy, (2) positively associated with voting when it is not compulsory, and (3) negatively associated with voicing frustration through challenging forms of activities (e.g., engaging in protests). Guided by our own research, it is my opinion that trust in politicians truly does matter.

A Basis, Domain, and Target Interpersonal Trust Framework Approach. For the past three years, my colleagues and I have embarked on a research program designed to examine trust in politicians using our Basis, Domain and Target framework approach. We have successfully developed a scale to assess individuals’ beliefs that politicians show reliability (e.g., keep promises), show emotional trustworthiness (e.g., keep information confidential when required), and show honesty (e.g., tell the truth rather than lying, and engage in behaviors guided by benign rather than malicious intentions). This line of research is just beginning, but we have found that people living in the UK who held high rather than low trust beliefs in the honesty of politicians were inclined to vote for the Labour party.

One positive quality of the BDT interpersonal trust framework is that it is a flexible approach to examining trust in politicians. It permits the examination of generalized trust in politicians (as we have done) but also permits the examination of trust beliefs in individual politicians. Furthermore, it allows us to examine whether or not the politician(s) demonstrate all or any forms of reliability, emotional trustworthiness, and honesty. What this means is that persons have different trust beliefs in the former president Nixon than they have in the other government officials involved in the Watergate scandal (i.e., they are not equally guilty and untrustworthy). Similarly, when a person decides to vote, he or she may believe that one political candidate is more trustworthy than the other political candidate on one basis of trust (i.e., keeps promises more frequently) but that other candidate is more trustworthy on another basis of trust (i.e., is more inclined to tell the truth). What is a voter to do?

Affiliations and Acknowledgment

1 Professor Ken J. Rotenberg, School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Newcastle -Under-Lyme, Staffordshire, UK, ST5 5BH, e-mail: k.j.rotenberg@keele.ac.uk

References

Blind, P.K. (2006). Building trust in government in the twenty-first century: Review of literature and emerging issues. 7th Global Forum on Reinventing Government, 1-31.

Cheng, H., Bynner, J., Wiggins, R., and Schoon, I. (2012). The measurement and evaluation of social attitudes in two British Cohort Studies. Social Research Council, 107, 351-371.

Hetherington, M. J. & Rudolph, T. J. (2008). Priming, performance, and the dynamics of political trust. Journal of Politics, 70, 498-512.

Leigh, A. (2002). Explaining distrust: Popular attitudes towards politicians in Australia and the United States, in Burchell, D. & Leigh, A. (2002). The Prince’s New Clothes: Why do Australians Dislike their Politicians? Sydney: UNSW Press.

Martin, A. (2010). Does political trust matter? Examining some of the implications of low levels of political trust in Australia. Australian Journal of Political Science, 45, 705-712.

Mishler, W. & Rose, R. (1997). Trust, distrust and skepticism: Popular evaluations of civil and political institutions in post-communist societies. The Journal of Politics, 59, 418-451.

Ken Rotenberg, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Keele University in the UK. He researches trust, loneliness, and other areas.

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