A running theme of Spoiler Alerts in recent years has been Americans’ erosion of trust in authority and what that means for the body politic: its effect on perceptions of the Supreme Court, the rise of conspiracy theories, the emergence of a post-truth political era and the overall decay of American democracy. The polling data, particularly from Gallup, is pretty clear about the trend lines. Compared to 20 or 50 years ago, the only government or nongovernmental institution that has seen an unambiguous increase in trust has been the military.
In the post-9/11 era (with a brief exception after the 2008 crisis), the only direction in which trust in institutions has gone has been down. So Monday’s new numbers from Gallup are interesting:
Americans express as much or slightly more confidence in each of the three branches of the federal government than they did in 2014 and 2015, when their confidence fell to record or near-record lows. Public confidence in the judicial branch has recovered to 61% after slipping to 53% in 2015. Meanwhile, since 2014, confidence in the executive branch has climbed eight percentage points to 51%, and confidence in the legislative branch has improved seven points to 35%.
Here are the trust figures of the three branches in graph form:
Now a glance at these numbers shows that this could just be a dead cat bounce. That said, it does correspond to other polling suggesting that Americans have come around to the idea that America is already great. So, could this be a reversal of a longstanding secular increase in distrust?
Maybe. But if you think about it, it’s a little odd that public trust has risen by so much in the past year. True, the federal government hasn’t defaulted on the debt or had to shut down the government. And the U.S. economy has unambiguously improved in the past year. Still, the executive and legislative branches of government can’t fill a Supreme Court seat, and minor things such as basic funding to handle the spread of Zika seem beyond the political branches of government.
A peek under the hood of these numbers suggests that a key source of the uptick in trust is a factor that over the long term has driven the increase in distrust: the rise of political polarization. From Gallup again:
After several years of Americans’ confidence in the federal government — particularly in the White House and Congress — wasting away, confidence has rebounded some. This is mainly because Democrats are feeling more positive. Republicans’ views of the executive and legislative branches have not changed much; their confidence in each remains low. But their confidence in the judiciary has rebounded some after dropping sharply a year ago.
These trust ratings are highly political, with Democrats and Republicans’ views especially dependent on the party occupying the White House. The current pattern of high Democratic confidence and low Republican confidence will likely continue if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election. Conversely, partisan confidence levels could reverse if Trump prevails.
So, in essence, increasing polarization has raised the floor for trust in government. Even if one group of partisans refuses to trust a branch of government because of opposition party control, another group of partisans will trust it, regardless of that branch’s actual performance.
So, to sum up, trust in government has risen from historic lows, but it’s likely not the beginning of a long-term resuscitation in public faith in institutions.
Oh, and everyone should probably read Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’s new book. It’s a good book, and it helps to explain these kinds of things.