The Impact of Political Trust on Representative Democracy
In episode 75 we welcome our guest Tom van der Meer, Professor of Political Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. He discusses the impact of political trust on the quality of representative democracy. He explains that the theme of political trust has been prominent since the post-World War II era, with scholars examining its influence on the stability of democratic regimes. The conversation covers various aspects related to political trust, its decline, consequences, and influencing factors. Here’s a summary of the key points discussed in the interview:
- Historical Context of Political Trust: The discussion starts by acknowledging the historical significance of political trust since the post-World War II period. Scholars in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s focused on understanding civic culture, public support, and political engagement. They were concerned about the potential disengagement of people from politics and democracy, which could undermine democratic systems.
- Decline in Political Trust: Tom points out that there isn’t a uniform agreement in the scholarly literature about a systematic decline in political trust. Different studies have yielded varied results. While some recent studies suggest a possible decline, it might not be substantial. Tom highlights that in some regions, there has been a structural decline in political trust, while in others, fluctuations are more evident.
- Consequences of Political Trust: Tom explores the consequences of political trust, emphasizing its impact on citizens’ compliance with laws, voting behavior, and protest actions. He distinguishes between blind trust and distrust, which are dispositions irrespective of institutional performance, and trust and distrust based on evaluation of performance. Tom suggests that declines in trust due to poor performance might be a positive response as citizens engage and protest to reinvigorate politics.
- Assumptions about Political Trust: The interview delves into two major assumptions: the decline of public support and the importance of political trust for democracy. Tom questions whether trust matters as much for democracy as assumed and highlights the need to distinguish between trust as an attitude and trust as an outcome of skepticism.
- Factors Influencing Political Trust: The interview discusses object-driven explanations such as structural and temporal factors, including impartiality of institutions and electoral systems, economic conditions, and scandals. Additionally, subject-driven explanations involve education, as educated citizens tend to evaluate politics based on performance and democratic values.
- Corruption and Trust: Tom explores the relationship between corruption and trust, explaining that corruption undermines trustworthiness by affecting the competence, care, commitment, and reliability of institutions. He emphasizes the importance of impartiality in addressing corruption’s impact on political trust.
- Political Rhetoric and Trust: The conversation touches on the common use of political rhetoric that mentions declining trust or damaged trust. Tom suggests that while such statements might be part of a strategy to emphasize the relevance of arguments, a continuous focus on declining trust might reinforce the perception of declining trust itself.
- Populism and Political Trust: The interview briefly addresses the relationship between populism and political trust. Tom indicates that the claim that populism grows on rising distrust is not well-supported by empirical evidence. However, he agrees that political trust is becoming more political, leading to shifts in voter behavior and party alignment based on trust levels.
Paraphrased and condensed version of the interview content.
Political trust isn’t universally declining; it varies across regions and times. Poor government performance causing trust loss can motivate democratic engagement. Trust is shaped by fair institutions, education, and electoral systems. Corruption damages trust and fairness counters it. Populism and trust aren’t always directly linked, but trust affects voting. The politicization of trust is concerning; parties dominated by distrusting individuals challenge democracy. Corruption undermines competence, care, commitment, and reliability. When trust declines due to poor performance, citizens can reinvigorate politics. Challenges in trust research lie in methodology diversification and the growing complexity of subfields.