by Jonathan Bernstein
First, I'd like to say hello to everyone, and to thank Andrew for asking me to stop by here while he's out. I'm a political scientist; as a group, we were late adapters to blogging, but it's becoming all the rage these days.
There are plenty of things that we, as political scientists don't know...but sometimes, we do have some useful information. For example, there's an annoying AP story this morning claiming that declining trust in government has something to do with...television. And yet, as political scientist Henry Farrell says, "When the economy is doing well, people trust government, they trust Congress and they trust a bunch of other institutions. When the economy's doing badly, people's faith tends to drop.'' Unfortunately, after the AP quotes Farrell, the story then ignores him and returns to speculation about how damaging it is for people to see things like the health care summit, with its bickering and lack of immediate action, on TV.
Well, not so. Political scientist John Sides did a nice item on trust recently at The Monkey Cage, showing that trust in government fell steadily in the 1960s and early 1970s (no surprise, given Vietnam and Watergate) and since then -- in fact, since the mid-1960s -- trust in government basically follows the economy. Contrary to the AP, loss of trust doesn't track with the rise of television (we don't really know because the data doesn't go back far enough, but trust was awful high in 1958, following the first decade of TV). Nor does it dip with the introduction of 24-hour coverage or the internet -- in fact, trust rose in the 1980s, and in the late 1990s.
More important, I think, are the implications of falling trust. The AP worries that falling trust "could turn society's skepticism to debilitating cynicism." But trust in government was pretty low in 2008, and I think it's hard to characterize that election as one of debilitating cynicism. Trust was pretty low in 1992, and that was another high-turnout election. For better or worse, trust just doesn't seem to behave the way alarmists think it should.
So, I'll start my week here reassuring everyone: of all the things that you might want to worry about, I'd put levels of American trust in government near the bottom of the list. As John Sides says: "More people will trust the government again when times are good, even if government ain’t."