If policy issues are perceived as being simple enough to generate firm conclusions, disagreement itself becomes inexplicable—unless one impugns the motives of those with whom one disagrees. The problem becomes intensified when mainstream politicians and media both take up these narratives and leverage governmental distrust for partisan gain. Partisan gain may be short-lived, but the change in rhetoric and narrative can have long-term stacking effects on general levels of trust.
Writing for the Niskanen Center, a Washington think-tank, Jeffrey Friedman discusses the crisis of legitimacy of governance as Americans lose faith in the capacity of government to solve social and economic problems. The legitimacy crisis of governance is linked to the amount of faith – trust – people place on their government to set things right. Focusing on the United States, Friedman notes that trust in government to do the right thing is contingent on several variables that can be determined from history.
For example, the beginning of the Vietnam War caused a sizable drop in governmental trust, likely because implementing military draft made the issue of trusting in the capabilities of the government an immediately personal one that had serious consequences. Success in the first Gulf War under Clinton, in turn, increased perception of governmental competence. Toward the end of the G.W. Bush administration public trust in government had dropped again, and the two consecutive Obama administrations only managed to stabilize the trend at its current low point. The effect of the Trump presidency – and indeed the year of intensely virulent campaigning – is yet to be determined.
Friedman plausibly hypothesizes that trust in government is the result of a cumulative experience, where failures of government to perform stack up in the minds of people, making reversing the downward trend of trust extremely difficult. A highly polarized political climate has also led to partisanship quite naturally guiding perceptions, i.e. Republicans see the government as more competent when it is controlled by Republicans (correspondingly Democrats see Republican governments as more incompetent). In the United States the election year of 2016 seemed to bring these perceptions to a bitterly contested nadir.
The increase in partisanship can be attributed to the way that politics has become represented as a zero-sum game, where complex policy disagreements are reframed as bitterly antagonistic debates over simple, common sense issues. This is anathema to deliberative policy practices (Mutz 2006). Partisans no longer face political problems, but political opponents. Friedman elaborates as follows: “if policy issues are perceived as being simple enough to generate firm conclusions, disagreement itself becomes inexplicable—unless one impugns the motives of those with whom one disagrees”.
Friedman considers several other variables that have led to the current wrought situation of political antagonism that leads to governmental trust.
1) The profit logics of commercial media often draws on outrage. While it is the media’s mission to highlight legitimate grievances so that action might be taken, the media can also compound on emphasizing that old problems remain unsolved even as new problems are discovered. Discussing problems rather than successes puts the public perception of government into an unfavorable light. Moreover, with the entry of conservative news outlets into the media markets some media outlets ideologically argue for incompetent government as a premise for less government. The media both reflects and amplifies public demands that “something must be done”, or that “politics must be fixed”.
2) The retreat of the state from politics can be seen as another factor that explains why trust in government started to reduce in the 1970s: neoliberal ideology dictates that the state is incompetent to handle economic issues, and as such they should be ruled out from political decisionmaking (Swanson 2008). After abolishing segregation and promoting civil rights in the 1960s, Friedman argues that subsequent US governments have failed to deliver anything substantial. Grand projects like the War on Poverty and War on Drugs have been dismal, counterproductive failures. As societal inequality grows, so does frustrated powerlessness that seeks (political) outlets. If government has ceded political power and the capacity to effectuate change, other parties will make claims to that power.
3) The rise of populism is both cause and effect of these issues. At the heart of populism is the need to simplify problems and solutions and to cast the established of political elites as individuals engaged in craven self-promotion. Populists, according to Friedman, claim that politicians are too entrenched in their elite circles, unwilling to do what evidently must be done (e.g. curtail “out-of-control” immigration). The common populist perception is that instead the government does nothing, or worse, actively works against the interests of the people (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse 1995). Thus populism maintains that government can solve problems, but only if the right people are put in charge. Populist attitudes increase volatility of public trust towards the government.
The change in rhetoric and narrative can have long-term stacking effects on general levels of trust.
All the previous points are mutually inclusive. According to Friedman, all three of these elements can also be linked to citizen ignorance of important issues; voters don’t truly understand the policy issues and are often instead captivated by simple but convincing political narratives – populist or otherwise. The problem becomes intensified when mainstream politicians and media both take up these narratives and leverage governmental distrust for partisan gain.
Partisan gain may be short-lived, but the change in rhetoric and narrative can have long-term stacking effects on general levels of trust. Individual politicians in high office, who – president Trump being the obvious example – seek to leverage the existing trends can further catalyze their quality and quantity.
Mikko Poutanen is a doctoral researcher for political science at the School of Management in Tampere University, specializing in qualitative research methods.
Hibbing, John R. and Theiss-Morse, Elizabeth. 1995. Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes toward American Political Institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mutz, Diana C. 2006. Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pew Research Center. 2017. Public Trust in Government: 1958-2017. 03.05.2017. http://www.people-press.org/2017/05/03/public-trust-in-government-1958-2017/#
Swanson, Jacinda. 2008. “Economic Common Sense and the Depoliticization of the Economic.” Political Research Quarterly 61(1): 56-67.