Modern American politics is rife with distrust. Voters don’t trust the politicians that they elect, and they certainly don’t trust opposing partisans. This has had a corrosive effect on trust in institutions, which has dropped precipitously since the 1970s. But what explains this drop in trust? Why don’t Americans trust the political process like they used to? And is it possible to return trust to American politics?
Answering these questions requires us to step back and take a look at U.S. history.
Pew Research found that public trust in government began collapsing in the mid-1960s and has essentially never recovered. The 1960s sparked a period of dramatic change in U.S. history. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, along with legislation opening up immigration from outside of Europe. There were protests and riots throughout the decade, over racial inequality and in opposition to the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, the Watergate scandal led to President Nixon’s resignation, and further drove cynicism towards elected leaders.
Declines in government trust are mirrored by declines in trust in the media. A recent poll found that 56% of Americans agreed with the statement that “Journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.”
Another thing sparking these trends is social media. Trust in government collapsed to its more recent local lows as social media hit the mainstream. Social media allowed Americans to completely segregate the kinds of people they interacted with and the types of information they received. Republicans no longer had to interact with Democrats or consume liberal news, and vice versa. This led to increased ideological and affective polarization, or hatred of the other side. When affective polarization is high, it is extremely difficult to have trust in institutions, in part because individuals aren’t going to trust opposing partisans to govern well when they hold power.
Americans today are more cynical about government, more partisan, and more fearful and angry at the other side. Is there any hope for an increase in trust in government, media, and other institutions?
There is precedent for such an increase, although it was short-lived. Trust in institutions rebounded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks during the Bush II presidency. A near-historic percentage of Americans rallied behind the flag and the President and set their differences aside. That increase in trust fell once again after the public realized the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were strategic failures.
It may require an event that impacts the entire country to pull Americans together and increase government trust. However, it is possible that even such an event would not increase trust any longer. After all, the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to push Americans apart and decrease trust in government even more. Partisan identity and affective polarization are so entrenched that it may no longer be feasible to expect trust in government to rise. That’s bad news for the ability of politicians to govern and actually get things done for the public.