Political trust: The glue that keeps democracies together
May 27th, 2020
by Susan Dodsworth and Nic Cheeseman, International Development Department, University of Birmingham
One factor seems to dictate the extent to which governments have been able to respond successfully to the COVID-19 pandemic: political trust. Trust in political institutions such as the legislature, executive branch, police, and courts, is commonly thought to shape both the stability and quality of democracy. In recent years, as populist leaders and anti-system parties have won high-profile electoral victories, some have presented falling levels of political trust as a crisis – both for established democracies and for their younger counterparts.
Citizens report alarmingly low levels of trust in their governments in places as varied as Spain, Tunisia, Peru, Poland and Australia. Partly as a result, many democracy assistance organisations, including the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), support programmes that aim to foster political trust. Sometimes this goal is explicit, but often it is implicit in programme designs and theories of change. For example, in Kyrgyzstan, WFD “invests in the development of MPs, councillors and officials, as well as improving engagement between citizens, institutions and decision-makers to improve trust in governance.” In Tunisia, the Netherlands Institute for Multi-party Democracy has supported the Tunisian School of Politics as a means of building trust in the political process.
A thorough understanding of the effects of political trust, and how it can be built, is essential to combat the rise of populism and anti-system parties, and would be valuable for democracy assistance more broadly. Despite this, political trust remains poorly understood.
This paper reviews existing research on political trust, explaining why it is important, what we know about it, and – perhaps most importantly – what we don’t. It argues that if practitioners, such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, are to foster greater levels of political trust, research into that phenomenon needs to become more innovative. Researchers will need to employ a great variety of methodologies, study a broader range of cases and ask more action-oriented questions to identify what institutional actors – such as parliaments – can do to earn the public’s trust.
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