Principles of Politics Exercise


Goals of This Exercise

  • Examine the relationship between trust in government and individuals’ political goals; specifically, to explore the notion of partisan trust.
  • Provide empirical evidence of declining trust in government and the potential differences among partisans depending upon which party controls the government at a given time.
  • Explore the various motivations of citizens and political elites to both enhance public trust in government as well as contribute to public distrust in government.

Trust in Government

The concept of moral trust refers to the trust in government that exists generally as a component of the values of a community; it is chiefly a product of socialization.

By contrast, rational trust situates trust in government in the individual who calculates a running tally of encounters with government and decides on an ongoing basis whether it is rational to continue to trust the government.

Political Goals and Political Trust

Perhaps people trust in instrumental ways as well. Following the concept of rational trust, we can understand citizens’ trust in government as a result of their political goals and their concluding views of what constitutes appropriate use of government power and influence.

Partisan trust posits that Republican and Democratic voters are more likely to trust the government if (and to the extent that) their party controls the government. That is, Republican voters are more likely to trust a Republican-controlled government just as Democrats are more likely to trust a Democratic-controlled government. In important ways, partisan trust can be considered a subset of rational trust with partisan goals the predominant factor in evaluating the government.

Who Trusts Government?

The question of moral trust in government has changed over time. Although overall citizens’ trust in government declined considerably in the second half of the twentieth century, there has also been variation in the levels of government trust that liberals and conservatives exhibit.

In the 1960s, for example, liberals as well as the radical left were more likely to register distrust in government over the intrusiveness of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other intelligence agencies as well as U.S. military and foreign policy (most notably, Vietnam).

By the same token, distrust in “big government” and its threats to liberty and the market economy were key elements of the conservative movement in the 1980s and 1990s.

Trust in Government 1964-2004

Examining the Rationality Principle

The Rationality Principle: all political behavior has a purpose. Political actors engage in instrumental acts to achieve their goals.

Describe the evolution of public trust in government from 1964 to 2004 as depicted in the preceding figure.
What might explain the decline in trust during this time? Explain the decline in trust both in terms of the “moral trust” and “rational trust” views.
What might explain the sharp rise in the public’s trust in government from 2000 to 2002 and then the partial decline from 2002 to 2004?

Testing Partisan Trust

How do levels of trust in government and its institutions differ in regard to partisanship?

In 1991, the Democrats controlled Congress. As such, we might expect that Republicans would be more likely to distrust Congress; that is, a Congress that was promoting and passing Democratic policies.

After the 1994 elections, Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in four decades. Did partisans respond in terms of their trust in the institution? Were Democrats more likely to distrust a Republican-controlled Congress that was promoting and passing Republican policies?

Respondents Expressing Very Little or No Confidence in Congress 1991

Respondents Expressing Very Little or No Confidence in Congress 1998

Respondents Expressing Very Little or No Confidence in Congress 2007-2008

Examining the History Principle

Does confidence in Congress follow the logic of partisan trust (for example, do Democrats trust Congress more when Democrats control the Congress)? What evidence supports your answer?
What impact might high-profile and very partisan leaders like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and Nancy Pelosi have had on partisan trust in Congress?
What do the differences between liberals, conservatives and moderates suggest about the concept of moral trust?


  • American National Election Study. Cumulative Datafile, 1958–2004. (accessed 2/22/12).
  • Fried, Amy, and Douglas B. Harris. “How and Why Politicians Promoted Public Anger.” In John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, eds., What Is it about Government That Americans Dislike? New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 157–74.
  • General Social Survey. Cumulative Datafile, 1972–2008. (accessed 2/22/12).
  • Hardin, Russell. Trust and Trustworthiness. New York: Russell Sage, 2002.
  • Uslaner, Eric. The Moral Foundations of Trust. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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