Aims and Objectives

What is the problem?  

There is a widespread concern among many scholars and popular commentators that citizens in Western democracies have grown increasingly distrustful of politicians, cynical about national and global governance institutions, and disillusioned with democratic processes and principles (Dalton 2004).

Debate about the extent and depth of any ‘legitimacy crisis’ continues, along with alternative interpretations of the comparative trends (Van Ham et al 2017). Nevertheless there is a broad consensus that confidence in political parties, parliaments, national governments, and the news media, in particular, has fallen steeply in Western Europe and the United States. In America, for example, the ANES Trust in Government Index shows fluctuations from 1958 to 2002, then a series of steady erosions over successive elections, even before the Trump era (see below).

Source:  American National Election Study,  Trust in Government’ Index, 1958-2016

Source: American National Election Study, Trust in Government’ Index, 1958-2016

Moreover American confidence in the legislative branch, in particular, has reached near historical lows during the last decade; for example, in Gallup polls today only one in ten Americans express ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in Congress.It remains to be determined whether this is a particularly American problem - or one which is found more generally across a wide range of comparable societies (Van Ham et al 2017).

Why does any loss of trust matter for democracy?

Any loss of trust and confidence generates considerable concern because of its potential consequences for democracy, including for the political culture, the stability of political regimes, and feelings of political legitimacy.

In particular, in democratic societies, a deep reservoir of political trust is widely believed to strengthen societal cooperation and tolerance, support for unwritten norms and practices which sustain democracy, and feelings of political legitimacy. By contrast, any loss of political trust is widely believed to erode civic engagement and discourage conventional forms of political participation like voting turnout (Van Deth et al. 2007; Dalton and Wattenberg 2000; Franklin 2004), to reduce support for progressive public policies (Hetherington 1998; 2005), and to fuel support for authoritarian-populist forces (Norris and Inglehart 2018).  

The risks posed by any erosion of trust are believed to be most serious for the stability of poorly institutionalized democratic regimes which are most vulnerable to backsliding. Ever since Almond and Verba’s (1963) Civic Culture, liberal democratic regimes are thought most durable when built upon a foundation of popular legitimacy. The challenges are particularly serious if public scepticism spreads upwards from core institutions of governance to corrode citizens’ evaluations about the performance of liberal democracy and even its core ideals. A series of recent monitoring reports warn of the risks of a liberal democratic retreat around the world, including those published by Freedom House, the Economist Democracy Index, Reporters without Borders, the Electoral Integrity Project, & the Varieties of Democracy project. Weak commitment to core democratic norms like political tolerance and trust is regarded as a sign of potential backsliding (Diamond and Pattner 2015; Mechkova et al. 2017; Foa and Younk 2016; Kurlantzick 2014; Diamond 2015; Diamond et al. 2016; Luce 2017; Klass 2017; Mounk 2018; Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018; Sunstein 2018).  

Moreover beyond the nation-state, the rules-based world order and international cooperation on issues from trade and human rights to climate change and development may also be undermined if there has been an erosion of public trust in the core institutions of global governance, like the U.N., World Bank, IMF, WTO, and NATO, and a widespread loss of confidence for regional multilateral organizations, such as the European Union. Nationalist forces and authoritarian-populist parties and leaders such as President Trump have risen to power and challenged the legitimacy of the rules-based liberal world order and the value of multilateral organizations, exemplified by deep divisions within the UK over Brexit, within the EU over immigration policies, and within the G-7 over trade.

Trust but Verify

At the same time, it is usually assumed conventionally by most scholars that more trust in government is automatically a good thing. A more critical perspective, however, suggests that levels of trust should ideally relate to the trustworthiness of the object of trust. We teach children never to trust strangers, for example, in case they pose a threat to the child’s welfare. Similarly, excessive trust in malevolent actors who wish us harm and disregard the public interest reflects foolish naivety and lack of prudence. It is problematic if citizens blindly trust corrupt, self-serving and venal leaders who undermine rule of law and minority rights, trample over checks and balances on executive powers, and seek to line their own pockets. Figure 1 illustrates the several ways that trust and trustworthiness may match correctly - or fail to do so. Both Type I and Type II errors can exist.

Types of errors.png

We theorize normatively that citizens’ trust should ideally reflect rationally-correct judgments about how far actors actually serve the public interest, and therefore trust can be both too low - and too high. Rational citizens should ideally ‘trust but verify’ by evaluating the trustworthiness of political actors and agencies based on accurate information about their procedural and policy performance. Moreover in the absence of information, it is rational for citizens to be skeptical.

Our aims

To address these issues, the TrustGov Project has five key aims and objectives.

  1. To reframe theoretical debates. The project will do so by using a ‘trust but verify’ notion as the normative yardstick to assess how far rational citizens form judgments about the trustworthiness of the agencies and the institutions of national and global governance. 

  2. To develop innovative concepts and expand scientific evidence. We will do so by developing and gathering data for novel and innovative indices of trust in, and trustworthiness of, political institutions that complement the existing measures that form the basis of much of our knowledge. We aim to document patterns and trends of trust in political institutions around the world – especially using survey data to map public confidence in the executive, judicial and legislative branches of national governments and in global governance agencies like the UN, World Bank and IMF. Comparisons will be extended far beyond the boundaries of contemporary democracies to examine the evidence in a global context, covering a spectrum of regimes from the authoritarian to the democratic. The TrustGov project plans to use a multimethod and multilevel research design to examine new empirical evidence available from (i) exploratory focus groups, (ii) cross-national time-series survey observational data gathered in many countries, sub-regions, and types of regime worldwide, and (iii) randomized experimental data.

  3. To expand knowledge about the drivers of trust. We seek to do so by analyzing and comparing public evaluations of procedural and policy performance with governance indices at global, national and regional levels, along with processes of communication and information, to assess how far the public is capable of making knowledgeable judgments about the trustworthiness of national and global government agencies. What are the reasons why Type I and Type II errors occur?

  4. To test empirical evidence about the spatial drivers of political trust. In addition, we seek to determine how far trust in political institutions varies by place – such as among nations, regions within a country, and among rural and urban communities. In particular, we seek to explore the relationship between support for national and global agencies of governance and place-based cultural identities and economic divides among citizens. 

  5. To inform multiple stakeholders about our findings. The project aims to use the lessons of our research to reframe public debate about trust, trustworthiness, and critical citizens who ‘trust but verify’, sharing evidence-based knowledge about practical reforms and best practices that multiple stakeholders can use to restore trust.