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Chapter 3: Political Trust

The first two chapters focus upon social trust, measured with the variable "Would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people". In this chapter we are going to look more closely at the concept of political trust.

Political trust has the same theoretical relationship to political capital as social trust has to social capital. In many ways the idea of political trust and political capital is a modern social science version of the classical concept of fraternity – together with liberty and equality, it is a necessary condition for democracy. We will use "confidence in parliament" as a measure of political trust, and as an indicator of political capital. Trust in parliament may be a good measure because confidence in institutions is about something deeper and more fundamental than trust in politicians or in particular governments. Parliament is the main representative institution of democratic governments, and sudden or consistent decline in confidence in it is a serious matter. There are also theoretical arguments for saying that confidence in institutions is the equivalent in modern large-scale society of interpersonal trust [Sel97].

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Political vs. Social Trust

Political trust and social trust are similar in some ways, but different in others. Social or interpersonal trust can be based upon immediate, first-hand experience of others, whereas political trust is more generally learned indirectly and at a distance, usually through the media. Nevertheless, just as social trust is said to be essential for civilised social life, so political trust is said to be essential for democratic and stable political life. For example, recent research shows that social and political trust significantly increases the chances of citizens paying their taxes. Hence, trust improves the practical possibilities of social co-operation, while at the same time reducing the risks of free-riding citizens and exploitive elites.1

Follow the link to the Trust dataset and solve the exercise:

  1. Descriptive: Compare political and social trust. Use both weights, and compare both the frequencies and the means.
    Click the icon for weighting, select the the combined weight variable. When the weight has been selected and is visible in the box, press OK. Click "Trust in Parliament", and select "Add to row". Press "Clear" to empty the table, and repeat the procedure for "Most people can be trusted". Compare the frequencies. Clear the table, and select one of the variables as the measure. Clear the table and repeat for the other variable.

Like social trust, political trust would appear to be a reflection of the external or objective conditions. It is not an expression of a basic feature of "trusting personalities," but an evaluation of the political world. This makes trust scoring a litmus test of how well the political system is performing in the eyes of its citizens. Low trust suggests that something in the political system – politicians or institutions or both – is thought to be functioning poorly. It may be that performance is poor, or that expectations are too high, but either way low trust tells us that something is wrong.

  1. Compare Country Means: Create a table that displays each country's mean for the variable "Trust in parliament". Use design weight.
    Click the icon for weighting, and make sure that only dweight is in the box. Please remember to press OK. Click the variable "Country", and "Add to row". Click "Trust in Parliament" and "Add as measure".

Political trust is expected to be associated with a slightly different set of variables to those affecting social trust. It is even more widely distributed among social types, but not entirely randomly. Whereas social trust is associated with social variables measuring social and economic success, political trust is rather more strongly associated with a set of political variables measuring interest in politics, pride in the national political system, a belief in open government, a low priority given to social order and the left-right scale.

  1. Correlation: Find the bivariate correlations between the following variables: Social trust, political trust, voluntary associations index, success and well-being factor score, How interested in politics, Placement on left-right scale, How satisfied with the way democracy works in country. Use the combined weight. How would you interpret the correlations? Is political trust more strongly associated with the political variables?
    Start by adding the weight: Select the icon for "weighting" on the menu. Enter the "combined weight" into the box and press "OK". Then you should select "Analysis" on the menu, and click "Correlation". Enter the variables in the box, and press "OK".
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Political trust and institutional performance

Some would argue that a measure of political distrust or lack of confidence is healthy for political life, that too much trust of politicians betrays innocence or unwise behaviour [Har99]. This may be so, but it is irrelevant. It does, indeed, make sense not to trust untrustworthy politicians and flawed political institutions, and in such circumstances lack of trust is hard-headed, sensible, and probably good for democracy. But at the same time, the point of democracy is to recruit political leaders who are honest and trustworthy, and, more importantly, to create a political system that ensures they behave in a trustworthy manner. Political trust is important because democracies are based on institutional mechanisms that are supposed to ensure that politicians behave in a trustworthy manner, or pay the political price.1 Confidence in the institutions that are supposed to maintain trustworthy politicians is a crucial element in this mixture.

Institutional micro theories about the origin of political trust hypothesise that political trust is a consequence of institutional performance. If the institutions perform well, they will generate trust [Mis01].

There are several variables in the ESS survey that could be used as measures of institutional performance. For example: "Satisfied with present state of the economy", "State of education" and "State of health services".

  1. Perform a bivariate correlation analysis between the variables "Trust in parliament", "Satisfied with present state of the economy", "State of education" and "State of health services". Is the hypothesis about a positive relationship between performance and trust plausible?
  2. Subset the data to a country you are familiar with and rerun the analysis from the exercise above. Do you find any differences? How will you interpret the results?
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