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Political Issues and Trust in Government: 1964–1970*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 September 2012

Arthur H. Miller
The University of Michigan


National survey data demonstrate that support of the federal government decreased substantially between 1964 and 1970. Policy preference, a lack of perceived difference between the parties, and policy dissatisfaction were hypothesized as correlates of trust and alternative explanations of this decrease. Analysis revealed that the increased distrust in government, or cynicism, was associated with reactions to the issues of racial integration and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. A curvilinear relationship was found between policy preference on these and other contemporary social issues and political cynicism. The minority favoring centrist policies was more likely to trust the government than the large proportion who preferred noncentrist policy alternatives. This complex relationship between trust and policy preference is explained by dissatisfaction with the policies of both political parties. The dissatisfied noncentrists formed highly polarized and distinct types: “cynics of the left,” who preferred policies providing social change, and “cynics of the right,” who favored policies of social control.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 1974

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1 Gamson, William A., Power and Discontent (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1968), chapter 9Google Scholar.

2 Berelson, Bernard R., Lazarsfeld, Paul F., and McPhee, William N., Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), chapter 14Google Scholar.

3 Gamson, pp. 42–48.

4 For a discussion of the dimensions of political alienation, see Finifter, Ada W.. “Dimensions of Political Alienation,” American Political Science Review, 64 (June, 1970), 389410CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Converse, Philip E., “Change in the American Electorate,” in The Human Meaning of Social Change, ed. Campbell, Angus and Converse, Philip E., (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1972)Google Scholar.

6 Robinson, John, Rusk, Jerrold, and Head, Kendra B., Measures of Political Attitudes (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Institute for Social Research, 1969), pp. 626647Google Scholar.

7 Stokes, Donald E., “Popular Evaluations of Government: An Empirical Assessment” in Ethics and Bigness: Scientific, Academic, Religious, Political and Military, ed. Cleveland, Harlan and Lasswell, Harold D. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962), p. 64Google Scholar.

8 See Aberbach, Joel D., “Alienation and Political Behavior,” American Political Science Review, 63 March, 1969), 3699CrossRefGoogle Scholar for a discussion of the importance of a specific referent when measuring political alienation. See also Keniston, Kenneth, The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), pp. 453455Google Scholar.

9 Cynicism and efficacy correspond very closely to Seeman's conceptualizations of normlessness and powerlessness and have been treated as theoretically separate components of political alienation by a number of analysts. Seeman, Melvin in “On the Meaning of Alienation,” American Sociological Review, 24 (December 1959), 783791CrossRefGoogle Scholar defines normlessness as “… a high expectancy that socially unapproved behaviors are required to achieve given goals.” Almond, Gabriel A. and Verba, Sidney, The Civic Culture (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1965)Google Scholar have emphasized the difference between these two concepts by drawing the distinction between “input affect,” that is, political efficacy, and “output affect,” or political cynicism (discussed in terms of trust). Gamson, , in Power and Discontent, p. 42Google Scholar, has likewise stressed their conceptual differences. He notes that the efficacy dimension of political alienation refers to “people's perception of their ability to influence.” There currently exists an extensive body of literature dealing with the conceptual problem of studying political trust, political efficacy and, more generally, political alienation. See, in particular, Aberbach, “Alienation and Political Behavior,” and Finifter, “Dimensions of Political Alienation.”

10 The empirical literature investigating trust is characteristically lacking in two respects: longitudinal considerations are rarely entertained, and little use is made of political issues as explanatory variables. Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of those few studies dealing with any form of relationship between issues and cynicism were either based upon restricted populations, such as college students or particular cities, or done under special conditions, such as at times of riots. Some studies that have dealt with issues but used limited samples are: Gamson, William A., “The Fluoridation Dialogue: Is it an Ideological Conflict?,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 25 (Winter 1961), 526537CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Litt, Edgar, “Political Cynicism and Political Futility,” Journal of Politics, 25 (May, 1963), 312323CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Aberbach, Joel D. and Walker, Jack L., “Political Trust and Racial Ideology,” The American Political Science Review, 64 (December, 1970), 11991219CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 The sample of respondents for each study is representative of a cross section of eligible voters living in private dwelling units within the continental United States. In 1970 the sample also included 18 to 20 year olds although they were not at the time eligible to vote. In the analyses making comparisons across the four different studies, only eligible voters were used. The 18 to 20 year olds, however, were included in any analysis which dealt with the 1970 data alone. The data were made available by the Inter-university Consortium for Political Research. Neither the Center for Political Studies nor the Consortium bear any responsibility for the analyses or interpretations presented here.

12 Factor analysis (with about 20 items for each study) indicated that for each of the four election studies under consideration, the five trust items formed a single dimension. The factor loadings for the five items were all well above .70 and the reproducibility coefficient was greater than .90 in all cases. On the basis of these criteria the five items were judged to satisfy the requirements of a one-dimensional Guttman scale. The scale scores were obtained with the Guttman scale scoring program in the OSIRIS package of social science software. The items were dichotomized as indicated in Table 1; only two items of missing data per individual were allowed; only two errors per individual were allowed; the “median” method of error correction was utilized for scoring error cases when appropriate.

13 Several studies have dealt explicitly with racial differences and political trust but with conflicting results. Finifter, for example, found that in 1960 blacks manifested a higher degree of normlessness than whites, a finding that runs counter to the results obtained from 1964 SRC data.

14 The item asking “How often can you trust the government in Washington to do what is right?” was selected for this portion of the analysis because it was one of the two items asked in all four years. It is also very much an “average” item for the set and has the greatest face validity as a measure of political trust. All responses including “Don't Know” were incorporated in the percentage base used to compute the percentage difference index.

15 Key, V. O. Jr., Public Opinion and American Democracy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 2776Google Scholar.

16 It should be noted that a model based upon the replacement of older, less cynical individuals in the population (who have presumably died) with more cynical, newly eligible voters does not explain the general increase in cynicism for the population. This replacement hypothesis was rejected because the data analysis shows that in 1970 for the total population those under 30 years of age were less cynical than those over 60.

17 For an insightful study of what various people perceive to be violence, see Blumenthal, Monica D., Kahn, Robert L., Andrews, Frank M., and Head, Kendra B., Justifying Violence: Attitudes of American Men (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Institute for Social Research, 1972)Google Scholar.

18 Campbell, Angus, White Attitudes Toward Black People (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Institute for Social Research, 1971)Google Scholar.

19 This explanation is given additional support by the degree of change in political trust found for blacks who felt the Civil Rights movement was going too slowly. In 1964, 27 per cent of the blacks fell into this category; six years later, the figure was 39 per cent. The growing impatience on the part of the blacks appears to be reflected in their increased cynicism, as indicated by the respective cynicism index values of 57.8 and —45.2. The magnitude of attitude change suggested by the difference between these two values is extraordinary, particularly for such a basic and presumably stable attitude as political trust. The aggregate increase in distrust of the government was substantially less for the 63 per cent of black respondents who felt that Civil Rights was moving at about the right speed. In 1964, the cynicism index value for these blacks was 53.6—not very different from impatient blacks—but by 1970 the blacks who were satisfied with the speed of the movement (now down to 54 per cent) were very much less cynical (—19.6) as a group than blacks who thought progress was too slow.

20 Gurin, Patricia, Gurin, Gerald, Lao, Rosina, and Beattie, Muriel, “Internal-External Control in the Motivational Dynamics of Negro Youth,” Journal of Social Issues, 25 (July, 1969), 2953CrossRefGoogle Scholar, investigates whether an individual places the blame for social or economic failure among blacks on the individual or the system.

21 Two pieces of information lend credence to this interpretation. First, the very substantial decrease in the percentage of respondents saying “don't know” corresponds more closely to the percentage increases in the middle and withdrawal categories than it does to the percentage fluctuation found in the escalation category. Second, as Rosenberg, Milton, Verba, Sidney and Philip, E. Converse point out in Vietnam and the Silent Majority: The Dove's Guide (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1970), p. 55Google Scholar, it is the “hawks” who have been the more informed on the Vietnam issue; hence, their attitudes on Vietnam would be more crystalized and less susceptible to change. What these data suggest, therefore, is that while there had been a trend toward support of withdrawal from Vietnam, there had not been a concurrent reduction in the polarization of attitudes on Vietnam policy. Continued conflict over Vietnam policy is understandable, given continued dissent among opinion leadership—identified by Brody, Richard A. and Verba, Sidney A. in “Hawk and Dove: The Search for an Explanation of Vietnam Policy Preferences,” Acta Politica, 7 (July, 1972), 285322Google Scholar, as among the most important independent variables in explaining opinions on Vietnam—as well as changes in official policy, a factor which tends to reduce the impact “current policy” would have on a converging policy preference.

22 Milton Rosenberg, Philip E. Converse, Sidney Verba, Vietnam and the Silent Majority; as well as Converse, Philip E., Miller, Warren E., Rusk, Jerrold and Wolfe, Arthur, “Continuity and Change in American Politics: Parties and Issues in the 1968 Election,” American Political Science Review, 63 (December, 1969), 10831105CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 The new measures were developed by Richard A. Brody and Sidney Verba.

24 The saliency of the contemporary issues is important, and an attempt was made to assess its impact on the relationships investigated here. The association between political cynicism and the seven-point issue measures was obtained for respondents who mentioned the particular issues as a problem in an open-ended question referring to the most important problems facing the government today. A comparison of the correlations for this presumably “more aware” subset and the remainder of the respondents consistently showed only a very slight increase in the correlations for the “more aware.” This suggests that although people may not volunteer particular contemporary issues in response to open-ended questions, they are still aware of them.

25 Scammon, Richard M. and Wattenberg, Ben J., The Real Majority (New York; Coward, McCann and Geohegan, Inc., 1971)Google Scholar. The implications of their major premise—that a presidential candidate must move to the center in order to win—is that a centrist policy is preferred by a majority of the voters.

26 For a definition of social control, see Gamson, , Power and Discontent, pp. 1119Google Scholar.

27 Campbell, Angus, Converse, Philip E., Miller, Warren E. and Stokes, Donald E., The American Voter (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1960), p. 178Google Scholar.

28 Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1957), p. 39Google Scholar.

29 On the whole, the Democratic party was placed more toward the left end of the issue scales, while the Republican party was perceived as endorsing policy alternatives found at the right end. Only 9 to 25 percent (with an average of approximately 15 per cent for the eight issues) of those who were able to place both parties on the issue scales perceived the Democratic party to the right of the Republican party.

30 Gamson, , Power and Discontent, p. 178Google Scholar. Gamson provides a general theoretical notion of the process underlying the development of political distrust. The dissatisfaction begins to be generalized when an undesirable outcome is seen as a member of a class of decisions with similar results. Authorities represent the first target of such generalization:

If such experiences extend over more than one set of authorities, potential partisans may conclude that the institutions themselves may be the source of bias, and “throwing the rascals out” will have little effect if indeed it is even possible. … Attacks on political institutions may in turn lead to distrust in the ideology or public philosophy used to justify them. Finally … the disaffection may be generalized to the political community itself and a desire for political separation may develop.

Gamson's developmental model does not, however, incorporate a concern with cause and effect or the intricate set of interactions which may occur over time between policy dissatisfaction, distrust and social or historical events. Declining levels of political trust may be the result of increased policy dissatisfaction, or it may be the other way around, or there might be a further independent variable responsible for the decline in both these variables. Cynicism may, for example, be considered in a very generalized form to be a personality attribute that would condition one's perceptions of the world, and one of its effects might be to cause a person to perceive a greater than normal distance between his preferences and what was being done by political authority to satisfy these preferences. Some societal factor may be causing an increase in political cynicism, which in turn acts as an intervening variable to bring about a rise in dissatisfaction with government policies. Alternatively, cynicism and dissatisfaction could both be connected with some changing social condition and therefore be only spuriously related to each other. These are alternative interpretations for trends that show declining trust in government to be related to policy dissatisfaction and they are worthy of further exploration. Unfortunately, they go beyond the scope of this report and would require the analysis of panel data before any conclusive separation of cause and effect could be accomplished.

31 Despite the fact that respondents had also been asked to place President Nixon on the scale, the following analysis deals with policies perceived to be associated with the political parties only. That no particular Democratic leader was fully recognized as the counterpart to the President precluded doing analysis with political leaders. It should, however, be noted that there was for the total population an extremely close correspondence between where the Republican party and Nixon were placed on the issue scales and analysis using either one provided virtually identical results.

32 The basic relationship between distance from both parties and cynicism is left unchanged by collapsing categories 4 through 6 of the original measures. The eta for the correlation with the full set of values was .33 as compared with .32 for the collapsed measures. Further analysis of the type presented in Table 8 but with various subgroups of the population was not possible because of the limited number of cases.

33 The proportion of the total population perceiving the Democratic party as taking a centrist position (#'s 3–5) on the eight issues ranged from 51.9 to 66.5 per cent. In comparison, 60.7 to 68.9 per cent placed the Republican party in positions # 3–5 on the eight issues.

34 Between 1970 and 1972 the cynicism PDI value for whites increased from 0 to 7, while trust continued to decline for blacks. The change in cynicism between 1970 and 1972 for blacks was, however, much slower than it had been between 1968 and 1970, going from a 1970 PDI value of —31 to —39 in 1972.

35 Gamson, , Power and Discontent, p. 52Google Scholar.