Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is it Really All about Trust or is the Party Over?

In Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism, Marc Hetherington argues that a decline in  political trust has undermined progressive policy enactment in America since the 1960s. He writes that America has not become more conservative, rather that Republicans have been able to exploit declining levels of trust to gain power.

In chapter 8, under the heading What the Left Should Learn he argues that liberals can reenergize public trust and reinvigorate progressive policy making if they only stopped the reflexive criticisms of the system and started to talk positively about government and the effect of policy. From page 146 and 147 "If progressives provide and alternative vision of government as one that takes care of older Americans, protects the environment, builds highways, and the like, Americans will trust that version of government... Recent Democrats have been too frightened to tell this story."

I cannot help but think that Democrats have been engaged in that exercise since 2006 and certainly since 2008. Democratic leaders like Speaker Pelosi and President Obama have an incredibly positive view of what government can do. President Obama spent his campaign and first 18 months in office trying to change public perception about government - yet the result thus far has been the opposite of what Hetherington predicted. Trust in government has fallen further, expressions of conservativism have risen, preferences for less government and fewer services are at recorded highs.

It seems that we are currently putting Hetherington's theories in Why Trust Matters to the test and thus far they are falling short.

The caveat may be that Democrats attained power by attacking government as helmed by Republicans - so they had to undermine confidence in Republicans to achieve victory, but may well have undermined confidence in government as well. This is a challenge for liberals, how do you simultaneously try to bolster confidence in government while criticizing government as led by Republicans. Can one expect the public to discern the difference between criticizing Republican governance specifically as opposed to American government in general?

This is of course the reality of governing and campaigning in an era of weak party attachment among the mass public. Since the 1960s the electorate has become much less attached to either political party. Data from the American National Election Study show that there has been a marked increase in the share of the electorate that is either Independent or Leaning Independent.

At the same time, the share of the electorate identifying as Strong Partisans has fallen from its highs in the 1950s and early1960s.

Why does the decline in partisanship matter? Because it effects how parties must campaign for office. In an era when partisanship was strong and very few Americans considered themselves to be Independent candidates for office could campaign based on voters positive attachment to their party. Voters were being asked to vote for the Democratic party, for the party's agenda. As relatively few Americans identified as Independent such partisan appeals worked. In the present era, however, neither the Democrats nor Republicans have a sufficient foundation of electoral support to campaign merely based on party attachment. Instead, they must campaign on a platform of rejection of the opposing party and its administration of government. To accomplish this it becomes necessary to undermine public confidence in opposition's governance and this typically, inevitably undermines public confidence in government.

Evidence of these efforts were seen in the Democratic criticisms of President Bush’s handling of the War in Iraq, in calls for a 9/11 Commission, and in response to the government’s response to hurricane Katrina. More recently, Republican criticisms of President Obama’s handling of the gulf oil spill serve the purpose of undermining confidence. Though these efforts at undermining confidence in the other party may offer short-term political gain, they also serve further to erode public confidence in government. Solutions to big problems, such as budget deficits, often seem too risky for either side in this “confidence game” to pursue.

Hetherington treated trust as an independent variable that undermined progressive policy making - in reality trust is a dependent variable resulting from a dramatic decline in mass partisan attachment since the 1960s. Trust is unlikely to rebound unless the American party system rebounds - at present there is little indication that such a rebound is likely to take place in the near future. Though Hetherington, in subsequent research, and other scholars like Alan Abramowitz (see his just released The Disappearing Center) argue that the public has become more partisan in recent years and more attached to party what these scholars have actually found is increased partisanship and polarization among political elites and they have mistakenly attributed that polarization to the mass electorate.

Rather more than one-third of the electorate operates as non-partisan free agents. So each party seeks immediate strategic advantage, but neither can undertake substantial policy reforms as they lack mass-based support. We entered an era that political scientist Walter Dean Burnham defines as the “politics of collision, coalition, and the permanent campaign.” This has created a system of government incapable of addressing the significant challenges before us, which then reinforces distrust and likely further undermines partisan attachment.