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Political Trust and Racial Ideology*

  • Joel D. Aberbach (a1) and Jack L. Walker (a1)


No government yet established has had the loyalty and trust of all its citizens. Regardless of the popularity of its leaders or how careful they are in soliciting opinions and encouraging participation in the process of policy-making, there are always those who see inequalities and injustices in the society and harbor suspicions of the government's motives and intentions. Resentment and distrust are elements of disaffection and the first step toward resistance. Therefore, even the most dictatorial governments have usually striven to increase their credibility and popularity. For democratic governments, however, the problem of combating distrust and encouraging voluntary acceptance of its institutions and decisions is a paramount concern. One of democratic theory's distinctive characteristics is its strong emphasis on voluntary consent, both as a basis of political obligation and as a central attribute of citizenship. The concern expressed by democratic thinkers about the elements of due process and the protection of opportunities for widespread participation is directed toward the creation of citizens who voluntarily accept the society's goals; “the demand for consent is the demand that the government must be more than self-appointed and must, in some significant way, be the chosen instrument through which the body politic and community acts ….”

Democracy's guiding ideal is the substitution of mutual understanding and agreement for coerciveness and arbitrary authority in all phases of social and political life. The existence of distrustful citizens who are convinced that the government serves the interests of a few rather than the interests of all is a barrier to the realization of the democratic ideal.



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The principal grant which supported this study came from the National Institute of Mental Health. Additional support also came from the Horace H. Rackham Faculty Research Fund and the Institute of Public Policy Studies, The University of Michigan. Thanks are due to Steven L. Coombs and William A. Gamson who read and criticized an earlier version of this paper and to James D. Chesney and Douglas B. Neal who assisted in the data analysis.



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1 Tussman, Joseph, Obligation and the Body Politic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 23 .

2 Sabine, George, “The Two Democratic Traditions,” The Philosophical Review, 61 (1952), p. 471 .

3 Gamson, William A., Power and Discontent (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey, 1968), pp. 4546 .

4 Almond, Gabriel A. and Verba, Sidney, The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 490 .

5 Gamson's work, op. cit., builds on the concerns of Parsons and Easton. See, especially, Parsons, Talcott, “Some Reflections on the Place of Force in Social Process” in Eckstein, Harry (ed.), Internal War (New York: Free Press, 1964), pp. 3370 , and Easton, David, A Systems Analysis of Political Life (New York: Wiley, 1965).

6 Agger, Robert E., Goldstein, Marshall N. and Pearl, Stanley A., “Political Cynicism: Measurement and Meaning,” The Journal of Politics, 23 (1961), 477506 and McClosky, Herbert, “Consensus and Ideology in American Politics,” this Review (1964), 361383 .

7 Stokes, Donald E., “Popular Evaluations of Government: An Empirical Assessment,” in Cleveland, Harlan and Lasswell, Harold D. (eds.), Ethics and Bigness: Scientific, Academic, Religious, Political and Military (New York: Harper, 1962), pp. 6173 ; and Aberbach, Joel D., Alienation and Race (unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University, 1967), especially pp. 102–126 and 206208 .

8 Stokes, op. cit., p. 68; Agger, op. cit., p. 494; and Litt, Edgar, “Political Cynicism and Political Futility,” The Journal of Politics, 23 (1963), p. 321 , Table 5.

9 Litt, op. cit., p. 320, Table 2.

10 See Rosenberg, Morris, “Misanthropy and Political Ideology,” American Sociological Review, 21 (1956), 690695 .

11 Litt, op. cit., p. 320, Table 1.

12 Ibid., p. 319.

13 Ibid., p. 320.

14 Ibid., pp. 317. Litt finds that the “degree of personal trust, unrelated to political cynicism in Boston, is directly related to the expression of cynical comments about politicians in the suburban community.”

15 Stokes, op. cit., p. 67.

16 Ibid., p. 64.

17 McClosky, op. cit., p. 370.

18 See Aberbach, op. cit., pp. 25–42 for a detailed discussion of the importance of specifying the focus in measuring disaffection and pp. 46–56 for a critique of the political trust literature using this perspective. A briefer discussion can be found in Aberbach, Joel D., “Alienation and Political Behavior,” this Review, 63 (1969), pp. 8699 . See, also, Keniston, Kenneth, The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), pp. 453455 .

19 Inter-University Consortium for Political Research (ICPR), 1966 Election Study (Ann Arbor, 1968), p. 129 .

20 Gamson, op. cit., p. 49.

21 Ibid., p. 51. Gamson suggests a series of conditions which discourage the generalization of political distrust. Among them are the disaggregation of large issues into smaller ones, an emphasis on the ad hoc nature of decisions (so that citizens do not see in negative decisions the application of general rules or principles), and a structural situation in which memberships of groups with varying goals and experiences overlap.

22 Lane, Robert E., Political Life (Glencoe: Free Press, 1959), p. 164 .

23 M. Kent Jennings and Richard G. Niemi discuss political trust in these terms on p. 177 of their article on The Transmission of Political Values from Parent to Child,” this Review, 62 (1968), 169184 .

24 This paper is based on data gathered in 1967 in Detroit. In 1968 we re-interviewed a random subsample of the original sample (N = 295) and we will interview a larger number of respondents in 1970, many of them for the third time. Our study will also include interviews done in 1967 and 1970 with administrators in the Detroit city government and with business, civic and labor leaders who are members of the New Detroit Committee.

25 Riot areas were defined by a location map of fires considered riot-related by the Detroit Fire Department.

26 The wording of these questions is drawn from Survey Research Center questionnaires. Preliminary statements of the kind cited above were included. See ICPR, op. cit., pp. 129–132.

27 A single political trust index was constructed. The items formed a clear dimension when data from the study were factor-analyzed. The factor analyses (varimax rotation) were performed on the whole data-set and separately for blacks and whites. Questions on Detroit and Washington are equally weighted so that the index runs from 0 to 4.

28 For confirmation of this view see: Banfield, Edward C., Big City Politics (New York: Random House, 1965), pp. 5165 ; and Greenstone, David, Report on the Politics of Detroit (Joint Center for Urban Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, 1961), Chapter 2.

29 See Stokes, op. cit., pp. 61–73 and Aberbach (1967), op. cit., pp. 119–126.

30 For example, see Brink, William and Harris, Louis, The Negro Revolution in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), pp. 131 and 232233 on Negro attitudes towards various political institutions and figures.

31 Lomax, Louis E., The Negro Revolt (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 250 ; and also see Myrdal, Gunnar, An American Dilemma (New York: Harper and Row, 1944), pp. 3–5, 880 and 1007 on the Negro as an “exaggerated American.”

32 Lane, op. cit., p. 164.

33 See Rosenberg, op. cit. The version we used consists of two of the three questions regularly asked by SRC in their surveys. They are:

1. Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?

2. Do you think that most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance or would they try to be fair?

34 See Aberbach, op. cit. (1969), pp. 92–93 for somewhat similar findings for whites using 1964 SRC national sample data.

35 Aberbach, op. cit. (1967), pp. 104–114.

36 The notion of a “theory of social disadvantages” aa a general explanation for attitudes of estrangement is developed at length by Olsen, Marvin E., “Political Assimilation, Social Opportunities, and Political Alienation” (unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, The University of Michigan, 1965).

37 For example, the correlation (Gamma) between education and political trust is .08 for blacks and .03 for whites.

38 The correlation (Gamma) between regional birthplace and political trust is .14 for blacks and .13 for whites.

39 The correlation (Gamma) between active affiliation with a church and political trust is .24 for blacks and .15 for whites.

40 Gamson, op. cit., p. 51.

41 Stokes, op. cit., p. 67: “When the individual's sense of political efficacy is compared with his positive or negative attitude toward government, it is apparent that a sense of ineffectiveness is coupled with feelings of hostility. This relation is more than a tautology. In other cultures or other historical eras a sense of ineffectiveness might well be associated with a positive feeling. In the context of democratic values, feelings of powerlessness toward public authority tend to create feelings of hostility toward that authority.”

42 Gamson, op. cit., p. 51.

43 This quote is from one of the respondents included in our 1968 panel. The 1967 questionnaire did not probe answers to the close-ended question on equal treatment in a government office. After examining the 1967 interview protocols, we believed that whites who felt they would receive unequal treatment often ascribed this to reverse discrimination and we used the 1968 interviews to confirm this hypothesis.

A poll by the Gallup organization reported in Newsweek (October 6, 1969) gives evidence of somewhat similar feelings among “a substantial minority of whites” that “the black man already has the advantage.” (p. 45).

44 For examples of analyses employing aggregate data see Ivo K. Feierabend, Rosalind L. Feierabend, and Betty A. Nesvold, “Social Change and Political Violence: Cross-National Patterns” and Davies, James C., “The J-Curve of Rising and Declining Satisfactions as a Cause of Some Great Revolutions and a Contained Rebellion,” pp. 632–688 and 690731 respectively in Graham, Hugh D. and Gurr, Ted R. (eds.), The History of Violence in America (New York: Bantam, 1969). An example of the use of psychological data is Bowen, Don R., Bowen, Elinor, Gawiser, Sheldon and Masotti, Louis H., “Deprivation, Mobility and Orientation Toward Protest of the Urban Poor,” pp. 174187 in Masotti, Louis H. and Bowen, Don R. (eds.), Riots and Rebellion: Civil Violence in the Urban Community (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1968).

45 A particularly interesting analysis of this type which is used to speculate about urban unrest in the United States is found in Gurr, Ted, “Urban Disorder: Perspective from the Comparative Study of Civil Strife,” pp. 5169 in Masotti and Bowen, op. cit. More details on the measures used in Gurr's study can be found in Gurr, Ted, “A Causal Model of Civil Strife: A Comparative Analysis,” this Review, 62 (1968), 11041125 .

46 See Cantril, Hadley C., The Pattern of Human Concerns (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965). Our respondents were given the following set of questions:

Now could you briefly tell me what would be the best possible life for you? In other words, how would you describe the life you would most like to lead, the most perfect life as you see it? (Show R card with a Ladder.)

Now suppose that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, the one you just described, and the bottom represents the worst possible life for you.

“Present Life” A. Where on the ladder do you feel you personally stand at the present time?

“Past Life” B. Where on the ladder would you say you stood five years ago?

“Future Life” C. Where on the ladder do you think you will be five years from now?

47 In our study, for example, income is correlated (Gamma) .29 for whites and .23 for blacks with position on the “present life” ladder. Income is thus a meaningful predictor, but these are far short of simple one-to-one relationships.

48 This proposition was tested for each racial group by a multiple regression analysis in which the measures of trust in people, the background factors, political experiences and expectations, and the ladders were used as predictors of political trust. The political variables and the relevant ladders each had an independent effect on trust with all of the other variables controlled. Multiple R's were .52 for the blacks and .49 for the whites.

49 See footnote 46 above for the wording on the “best possible life” questions. The “best possible race relations” items were in the same form with the following sentences as the initial stimulus:

Here in Detroit, as in many places, different races of people are living together in the same communities. Now I would like for you to think about the very best way that Negroes and white people could live in the same place together. In other words, what would be the very best kind of race relations, the most perfect you could imagine?

This item was adapted from that used by Matthews, Donald R. and Prothro, James W., Negroes and the New Southern Politics (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), pp. 285–294, 513514 .

50 Income and job advancement were desired by 28% of the blacks and 16% of the whites, good health or family life by 22% of the blacks and 20% of the whites and personal property (homes, cars, etc.) by 15% of the blacks and 11% of the whites. The major difference was that 13% of the whites (as opposed to 3% of the blacks) said the life they were now living was the best possible and 23% of the whites, compared with 9% of the blacks, mentioned peace and tranquility.

% Scoring High (7–10) on “Best Possible Life” Ladders, by Race

We will present more complete descriptions and analysis of the answers to the “best possible life” question in Aberbach, Joel D. and Walker, Jack L., Race and the Urban Community (Boston: Little Brown, forthcoming).

51 Our “Best Possible Race Relations” ladders yielded the following results:

% Scoring High (7–10) on “Best Possible Race Relations” Ladders, by Race

52 The correlation (Gamma) is .09 for blacks because there is virtual unanimity in the black community on integration. See Aberbach, Joel D. and Walker, Jack L., “The Meanings of Black Power: A Comparison of White and Black Interpretations of a Political Slogan,” this Review, 64 (1970), p. 883 .

53 Ted Gurr stresses the importance of “anticipated interference with human goals” in his analysis of discontent. He says that,

analysis of the sources of relative deprivation should take account of both actual and anticipated interference with human goals, as well as of interference with value positions both sought and achieved. Formulations of frustration in terms of the “want:get ratio,” which refers only to a discrepancy between sought values and actual attainment, are too simplistic. Man lives mentally in the near future as much as in the present. Actual or anticipated interference with what he has, and with the act of striving itself, are all volatile sources of discontent.

See p. 254 of Gurr, Ted, “Psychological Factors in Civil Violence,” World Politics, 20 (1968), 245278 .

54 We have already seen above that there are some whites who believe that they would receive unequal treatment at a government office because of their race. Even more astounding, however, is the fact that in our 1968 survey of a random subsample of the original (1967) sample 46% of the whites believed that if they were black they would be either making advances toward their goals in life or advancing more rapidly toward their goals. This compares to 57% giving similar answers in the black community. Unfortunately, this question was not on our 1967 questionnaire.

55 More than half of the white respondents in our sample could not name any national or local leader who represented their views on race relations and whites actually scored lower than blacks on our measure of subjective political competence. See our discussion of these points in Aberbach, Joel D. and Walker, Jack L., “The Meanings of Black Power: A Comparison of White and Black Interpretations of a Political Slogan,” a discussion paper issued by the Institute of Public Policy Studies, The University of Michigan, 1968, pp. 2734 .

56 Lupsha has discussed the same basic phenomenon: “Anger can occur without one's being frustrated or deprived. One can learn that certain events, or violations of one's rights and values, should be responded to with hostility. One can be angry and aggressive because one's values or sense of justice (a learned phenomenon) have been affronted, without any blocking of the individual's goal-directed activity, or awareness of any personal “want-get ratio” deprivation, or any personal feelings of “anticipated frustration.” One can be angry and aggressive simply because one believes the behaviors of the situation are wrong or illegitimate.” See p. 288 of Lupsha, Peter A., “On Theories of Urban Violence,” Urban Affairs Quarterly (1969), 273296 .

57 Aberbach and Walker, op. cit. (1970), pp. 379–386.

58 See, for example, Tomlinson, T. M., “The Development of a Riot Ideology among Urban Negroes,” American Behavioral Scientist (1968), 2731 .

59 Less than 2 percent of our black sample endorsed the idea of the separation of the races. This is not surprising in light of the history of the concept integration as a symbol of equality in the black community. We used the word separation in our questions in order to overcome the obvious connotations of segregation, but few of our respondents were attracted by the term and almost none used it spontaneously in their definitions of the “best possible race relations.” Even among intellectuals, most of the debate about race relations revolves around various forms of social pluralism as opposed to assimilation. One of the major goals of our panel study is to examine the ways in which people modify their ideals about desirable forms of race relations and community goals through time. See Aberbach and Walker, op. cit. (1970), p. 383, especially footnote 49.

60 The correlation (Gamma) between the two is .49 for whites. The exact distributions by race on spending public money are as follows:

Spend More Money to Improve Conditions

61 For example, the correlation (Gamma) between political trust and scores on the future race relations ladder is .36 for segregationists and .27 for integrationists. It is .37 for the entire white sample.

62 Gurr, “Urban Disorder: Perspectives from the Comparative Study of Civil Strife,” op. cit. See Aberbach, op. cit. (1969) for an extended discussion of political distrust and political behavior.

63 Gamson, op. cit., pp. 172–178.

64 Frazier, E. Franklin, Black Bourgeoisie (Glencoe: Free Press, 1957).

65 Gamson, op. cit., p. 45.

66 Schattsohneider, E. E., The Semi-Sovereign People (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), p. 64 .

67 Edelman, Murray, The Symbolic Uses of Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964), pp. 4142 .

* The principal grant which supported this study came from the National Institute of Mental Health. Additional support also came from the Horace H. Rackham Faculty Research Fund and the Institute of Public Policy Studies, The University of Michigan. Thanks are due to Steven L. Coombs and William A. Gamson who read and criticized an earlier version of this paper and to James D. Chesney and Douglas B. Neal who assisted in the data analysis.


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