Why don’t Americans trust the government? Because the other party is in power.

January 30

Marc Hetherington is Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Thomas Rudolph is Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They are the authors of “Why Washington Won’t Work: Political Trust, Polarization, and the Governing Crisis.”

Little doubt remains that our elected officials are polarized in one way, shape or form. When it comes to what is happening in Washington, the debate isn’t about whether there is polarization; it is about how and why. However, a recent Monkey Cage post by Morris Fiorina and Sam Abrams tells a very different story about the public. They argue that ordinary Americans are not ideologically polarized. They find that ordinary Americans are not more extreme in their beliefs than they used to be.

We offer a way to make sense of this discrepancy between our representatives and those they represent. We argue that polarization does exist in the electorate, but also contend that it is not ideological in nature. That polarization in the electorate is not ideological makes sense because 60 years of research suggests that most Americans do not think about politics ideologically. Instead, we uncover increasingly and deeply sour feelings that partisans now have about the other political party. A consequence of these negative feelings is vanishingly low trust in government when their party is out of power. As a result, public consensus rarely if ever develops on issues, and public opinion fails to nudge policymakers toward compromise.

First, consider how raw feelings have become. In November 2011, Jason Reifler had a survey in the field in which he posed a question that survey researchers have been asking for decades. He asked people to place the Republican Party and the Democratic Party on a feeling thermometer that runs from 0 (really hate the group) to 100 (really love the group).

The average score Republicans gave the Democratic Party was just 18 degrees, and the average score Democrats gave the Republican Party was the same, 18 degrees. When Jimmy Carter was president, those average scores for the other party tended to be in the mid-40s. Even as recently as Bill Clinton’s presidency, they were always at least solidly in the upper 30s. To understand the depth of the recent upturn in negative feelings, we should recall that the late Clinton-era readings were taken even as one party was impeaching the president of the other party.

A feeling thermometer in the high teens or low 20s is Polar Vortex cold. According to the 2012 American National Election Study (ANES), Republicans also gave low scores to groups that people connect to the Democratic Party, such as “gays and lesbians” (48 degrees), “feminists” (48 degrees), “labor unions” (40 degrees), and “atheists” (35 degrees). And Democrats provided relatively lukewarm scores to groups that people connect to the Republican Party, such as “Christian fundamentalists” (50 degrees), “big business” (51 degrees), and the “Tea Party” (35 degrees). Although temperatures like these might require a jacket, all are much warmer than those that partisans gave the other party in 2011. Indeed, although partisans’ feelings about the other party warmed a bit in 2012, they were still at least a little cooler than all these comparison groups.

It seems an important indication of how politics is today that partisans express more negative feelings toward the other party than they do toward atheists. It is not just lower scores on feeling thermometers, either. Shanto Iyengar and his co-authors find, among other things, that partisans are increasingly uncomfortable with their children marrying people who identify with the other party.

How do these sour feelings manifest in politics? In our ongoing book project, “Why Washington Won’t Work,” we demonstrate that partisans from the party opposite the president’s do not trust the government at all. Around the time of the watershed 2010 election, we asked a random sample of Americans a classic trust in government question, but with a twist. We allowed people to answer that they “never” trust the government in Washington to do what is right, along with the usual response options “only some of the time,” “most of the time,” and “just about always.” The figure just below shows that Republicans trusted the Democratic-controlled government about as far as they could throw it.

 

In fact, over 50 percent of Republicans said they never trusted the government to do what is right at the end of 2010. Only 2 percent of Republicans provided one of the two trusting responses, “just about always” or “most of the time.”

This extreme lack of trust is a fundamental departure from the past. Since the ANES began asking this question regularly in the 1960s, distrust of government has never been so high. The figure below shows that, when grouped by presidential administration, a largely constant 30 to 40 percent of Democrats have provided trusting responses to this question dating back to the Nixon presidency. The percentage of trusting Republicans has bounced around more over time, with this group trusting government a lot when government is run by a Republican and much less when it is run by a Democrat. That said, the near complete absence of government trust among Republicans during the Obama years is remarkable.

 

Although the figure above makes the story seem like a purely Republican one, Democrats in the late George W. Bush years were also especially distrusting of government. In the figure below, we take a closer look at the trend in political trust, using a variety of media surveys taken since the September 11 terrorist attacks. They reveal that Democrats, starting in 2005, began to express much less trust in government than was typical of them. Fewer than 20 percent provided trusting responses during the last three years of the Bush presidency. Republicans have, of course, taken this out-party distrust to a new low since Barack Obama’s election, with fewer than 10 percent often expressing trust in government since 2009.

 

 We believe the absence of trust in government when run by the other party is a key reason why a public that is not ideologically polarized nonetheless tolerates the ideological excesses that are occurring in Washington. With little to no trust in government, Republicans in the electorate are not keen to nudge their representatives toward compromise when Democrats are in power. The same was true of Democrats at the end of the Bush presidency, when it was they who fundamentally lacked trust.

It is not that partisans love their own side’s ideas. Instead, they now deeply distrust their opponents’. As a consequence, public opinion does not encourage polarized politicians to rise above their basest instincts. Although public opinion did not create the polarization that has caused Washington to grind to a halt, it now reinforces it.

Further Reading

This is the latest post in our ongoing series on political polarization. The previous posts are listed below.  -Dan Hopkins

What we do know and don’t know about our polarized politics.

American politics is more competitive than ever.  That’s making partisanship worse.

Polarization we can live with.  Partisan warfare is the problem.

How political polarization creates stalemate and undermines lawmaking.

Electing more women to Congress isn’t a solution for polarization.

How U.S. state legislatures are polarized and getting more polarized (in 2 graphs).

How ideological activists constructed our polarized politics.

Our politics may be polarized.  But that’s nothing new.

Our politics is polarized on more issues than ever before.

How race and religion have polarized American voters.

Can young voters break the cycle of polarization?

Americans aren’t polarized, just better sorted.

How politically moderate are Americans?  Less than it seems.

The real extremists are American voters, not politicians.

How better educated whites are driving polarization.

How our partisan loyalties are driving polarization.

Party polarization is making is more prejudiced.

 

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