Brown University

The Evolution of Trust in American Democracy by Alexis Viera @ Brown University

In 2016, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index demoted the U.S. from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy,” citing a declining trend with regard to confidence in political institutions within the American public. It reasons that growing apathy in a representative government facilitates the ascension of anti-mainstream politics.

This thought process is in line with Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepans’ views on democratic legitimacy. In their article, “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes,” Linz and Stepans claim that democratic legitimacy requires a trust in government’s commitment to uphold the mandates of democracy. They maintain that even a majority of the electorate believing in the government’s legitimacy does not guarantee the stability of that style of governance in a nation. By the end of the campaign period, both presidential candidates in the most recent U.S. election had historically low favorability ratings. Linz and Stepans assert that loss in support for all political actors in a democracy preempts the erosion of democratic legitimacy.

Indeed, the data that The Economist’s research and analysis division collected on the United States seems to support this. Only 19 percent of Americans have trust in their government to “do the right thing” always or even most of the time. To compare, 73 percent responded in such a way when the question was first asked in 1958. If “doing the right thing” is any indicator of trust in government to follow the democratic norms that Americans value, the U.S. falls astonishingly short of the levels of legitimacy that would suggest democratic stability.

Linz and Stepans presumed that citizens would be mobilized by what they perceived to be a lack of democratic efficacy. The researchers felt that the polity would throw its legitimacy and support behind a different form of governance. In what may be accordance with this notion, the number of Americans that consider it essential to live in a democracy declines across generations. Nearly 75 percent of surveyed citizens born in the 1930s believe that democracy is essential. The number drops consistently with every subsequent decade, concluding with the respondents born in the 1980s down at around 30 percent. While there has been no mobilization behind a different form of governance, that may be said to be a result of the lack of a popular politician promoting one so far.

But as a representative system, growing apathy towards democracy spells trouble. Imperative to democracy is participation in its processes. Turnout in the 2016 general election was at a near 20-year low and is facing a downward trend. At only slightly more than half of voting age citizens, our government is quite an inaccurate representation. And this horrible statistic only paints half the picture.

Midterm elections determine who sits in all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and a third of seats in the Senate, composing a striking majority of Congress. Midterm elections provide an opportunity for the electorate to deeply influence the structure of our governing bodies, and yet turnout is far less than half—significantly worse than for the already abysmal general elections.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Bernie Sanders suggests that American apathy with regard to political outcomes has resulted from voter frustration. “The anger is there,” Sanders says, but “it’s an anger that turns into saying, ‘Go to hell, I’m not going to participate in your charade. I’m not voting.’ So it’s a weird kind of anger. It’s not people getting out in the streets… We’re at the stage of demoralization.”

Americans are thereby caught in a vicious cycle. If disillusionment with government is driving voters away from polls, a government is to be trusted even less on representing the issues that its constituency cares about, since the input it has been given is skewed. Only those who are sufficiently passionate and believe in their political efficacy will have a voice in the government of the whole people, in addition to the (probably contradictory) voice of the rich, whose money can have an even more direct influence.

Worsening trust in governing officials and institutions is where political crisis can emerge. Whether or not the preservation of democracy is a desirable anymore, political crisis is different from and more dangerous than the transference of legitimacy from one type of regime to another. Apathy in the American public must thereby be challenged.


  1. Kasey Powers

    January 30, 2018 at 1:14 am

    I do not doubt that the American people have less faith in the integrity of their government than they did in the mid-20th century. Whether this is due to misbehavior by political leaders, the changing nature of the media, greater partisan deadlock, or some combination of these, I still believe there is reason to feel secure in the perceived legitimacy of the U.S. government.

    Take for instance the idea that the number of people believing that democracy is essential has been consistently declining. While I don’t doubt the validity of this particular survey, other research suggests that we may not be losing as much faith in democratic values as perceived. Pippa Norris, using data from the World Values Survey, finds that responses are much more mixed among age groups than is generally reported, and there is also evidence of a persistent life-cycle effect, rather than a real generational difference (see “Is Western Democracy Backsliding?”).

    Ultimately, however, I feel the U.S. is far too entrenched a democracy to experience the kind of anti-democratic mobilization that Linz and Stepan warn about. As Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg imply in their 2018 paper “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy,” our country may just be too old and too rich to experience the kind of authoritarian reversal that threatens other nascent democracies who experience crises of legitimacy. While we are not immune to backsliding, and while President Trump may be the most anti-system candidate ever elected (to use Linz’ own words), even he could not assume the presidency without following the rules. And even after wide criticism of those rules in his loss of the popular vote and subsequent turbulent first year in office, we still accept him as our legitimate leader. I see no reason to fear otherwise in the near future.

  2. John Ganger

    February 16, 2018 at 3:07 am

    I found your observation that Americans seem to be caught in a “vicious cycle,” in which they do not vote because they lack confidence in the system and candidates, and therefore are not represented and become even more disillusioned very moving, and this does seem to be the trend over the last several election cycles, at least. But, recent polling implies that the 2016 election may have reversed this trend, at least among young voters.
    The Millennials After 2016: Post Election Poll Analysis published by Jonathan M. Tisch at the Tufts University College of Civic Life recorded whether millennials (the generation consisting roughly of people born between 1982 and 2000, by the US Census Bureau measure) were more or less likely to remain politically engaged after the election. 30% of Clinton voters agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they were “motivated to get politically involved after the election,” compared to only 25% who disagreed or strongly disagreed. Trump voter numbers were 22% agreeing, 36% disagreeing. Ironically, these numbers contradict the amount of people saying that they are “confident about democracy in the United States,” as only 19% of Clinton voters agreed with that statement compared to 43% disagreeing, and 48% of Trump voters agreeing and only 13% disagreeing.
    It is interesting that, at least among young voters, the relationship between willingness to participate politically and confidence in American Democracy is the opposite of what you predicted, and what I would have initially expected. But, with further thought, these numbers do make some sense: people who voted for the losing candidate are less confident in democracy, probably because they lost, and more likely to become or remain civically engaged, probably to improve their chances of winning next time, and to voice their disapproval of the current president.
    Overall, I agree with you that, while the United States may have experienced some backsliding, we are not in immediate danger of losing our democracy. Although the opposition (Clinton voters) are disillusioned by the election results, they intend to continue to participate, at least to some extent.

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