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Comment: The Political Relevance of Trust in Government*

  • Jack Citrin (a1)

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“In God We Trust: Everyone Else Pays Cash.” America's political leaders should not pretend to godliness; no one will be fooled. According to prestigious biennial national surveys, the government's credit rating has steadily declined as a result of a disastrous foreign investment and growing consumer resistance to its “line” of products. Neither the country's present management nor its most prominent rivals inspire public confidence. How, then, can the political system rebuild its depleted reserves of political trust, the basis of future growth and stability? Will “one good season,” better advertising, new blood in the boardroom or product innovation be sufficient? Or is a drastic restructuring of the regime's organization and operating procedures the only alternative to liquidation?

Arthur Miller's article, “Political Issues and Trust in Government: 1964–70” makes an important contribution to our understanding of the sharp increase in political cynicism among the American public. Miller evokes the language of the corporation balance-sheet and the imagery of Executive Suite by suggesting that the cumulative outcome of exchanges between political authorities on the one hand and citizens on the other determines the level of public trust in government. Political elites “produce” policies; in exchange, they receive trust from citizens satisfied with these policies and cynicism from those who are disappointed. Since Miller defines both policy satisfaction and political trust in attitudinal terms, the exchange transactions he records are purely psychological in nature. Operationally, dissatisfied respondents are those whose own policy preferences are discrepant with their perceptions of the positions advocated by the party controlling the presidency.

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1 Other studies that support the conclusion that political factors such as ideological orientations, evaluations of the performance of governmental institutions, and responses to personal contacts with political authorities are important causes of political disaffection are Aberbach, Joel and Walker, Jack, “Political Trust and Racial Ideology,” American Political Science Review, 64, (December, 1970), 11991219, Muller, Edward N., “The Role of Political Distrust in a Theory of Support and Opposition to the Regime,” unpublished paper delivered at the Madison, Wisconsin Conference on Public Support for the Political System, Aug. 1317, 1973, Citrin, Jack, “Political Disaffection in America: 1958–68 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, Jan., 1972); and Citrin, Jack, McClosky, Herbert, Shanks, J. Merrill, and Sniderman, Paul M., “Personal and Political Sources of Political Alienation,” British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 4 (September, 1974).

2 On this point see Citrin “Political Disaffection in America,” chap. 4, and Miller, Arthur, Brown, Thad, and Raine, Alden, “Social Conflict and Political Estrangement,” unpublished paper delivered at the 1973 annual meetings of the Midwest Political Science Association.

3 For example, in 1964, the association between personal trust and political trust was .21 (tau-b); in 1968 it was .20 (tau-b). Aberbach and Walker report a relationship of .16 (gamma) for their Detroit sample.

4 Throughout this paper I use the terms political authorities, regime, and community in the sense of Easton, David, A Systems Analysis of Political Life (New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1965). In addition, I use the term political system as a synonym of regime.

5 These figures are computed from the marginal distributions provided in the ICPR 1972 Election Study Codebook. “No answer” responses are omitted from the total base. The last two questions are restricted variables made available by J. Merrill Shanks.

6 See the extended discussion of this point in Citrin et al., “Personal and Political Sources of Political Alienation.”

7 Unless explicitly noted, all the tables reported and all figures in the text derive from my own analysis of the 1964, 1968, 1970, and 1972 election study data made available by the Inter-University Consortium for Political Research. My scoring of the Trust in Government scale employs the same item dichotomies as Miller does, although our handling of missing data varies slightly and I construct scale scores by simply summing responses rather than using a formal Guttman scoring procedure.

8 This conclusion has disturbing implications for analysts of time-series data. Again, the appropriate safeguards lie in conceiving of the construct validation process as a continuous one.

9 Quoted in Current, Richard N., The Lincoln Nobody Knows (New York, McGraw Hill, 1958), p. 187.

10 See Schwartz, David, Political Alienation and Political Behavior (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co. 1973), ch. 8, for a good summary of the problems in “modeling” the attitude-behavior linkage. The concept of a “behavioral orientation” is similar to Rokeach's concept of “attitude toward the situation.” See Rokeach, Milton, Beliefs, Attitudes and Values (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1970).

11 Muller, Edward N., “A Partial Test of a Theory of Potential for Political Violence”, American Political Science Review, 66 (September, 1972), 928959.

12 Schwartz, chaps. 9, 10.

13 Sears, David O. and Maconahay, John, The Politics of Violence (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).

14 Paige, Jeffery., “Political Orientation and Riot Participation”, American Sociological Review, Vol. 36, (1971), 810820.

15 Citrin, Jack, McClosky, Herbert, Shanks, J. Merrill, and Sniderman, Paul M., “Sources and Consequences of Political Alienation: A Preliminary Report on Indicator Development,” unpublished paper delivered at the Madison, Wisconsin, Conference on Public Support for the Political System, August 13–17, 1973.

16 See, for example, the conflict between Paige's study of Newark rioters and the report on the Watts riot in Ransford, H. Edward, “Isolation, Powerlessness and Violence: A Study of Attitudes and Participation in the Watts Riot”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 73 (1968), 581591.

17 See the argument made by Fishbein, Martin, “Attitude and the Prediction of Behavior,” in Readings in Attitude Theory and Measurement, ed. Fishbein, Martin (New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1967).

18 The exception is Muller, who finds that relative deprivation has a weak influence on the potential for political violence and that this influence is entirely dependent on whether such feelings of deprivation are associated with political mistrust. Muller's measure of relative deprivation, however, does not include the element of politicization that is subsumed by the concept of policy dissatisfaction.

19 The exact working of these questions can be found in the ICPR codebook of the CPS 1970 National Election Study, pp. 83–84.

20 Muller, , “A Partial Test of a Theory …”, p. 934.

21 Ibid. p. 936.

22 The measure of policy dissatisfaction for both 1970 and 1972 refers to the mean distance between a respondent's issue position and the position he attributes to the Republican party on the following eight issues: Vietnam, health insurance, inflation, urban violence, crime control, campus protests, and pollution. See Miller, this issue of the Review. The figures concerning the relationships between policy dissatisfaction and approval of political dissent are not included, but in every case these are significant at at least the .01 level.

23 See Citrin, “Political Disaffection in America,” chap. 6, for a detailed report on the connections between diverse orientations toward the political system and political participation.

24 For the distinction between “position” and “valence” issues, see Stokes, Donald E., “Some Dynamic Elements of Contests for the Presidency,” American Political Science Review, 60 (March, 1966), pp. 1938.

* I would like to thank Scott Brickner, Daniel Hallin and Merrill Shanks for their assistance in the preparation of this article. The data analyzed were made available by the InterUniversity Consortium for Political Research. In addition I would like to thank Merrill Shanks and Richard Brody for allowing me access to selected materials in the 1972 National Election Study.

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