Posted by: Jeff | February 19, 2010

Stimuli and Reaction

At the start of the week, John Sides put up some data on Americans’ trust in government. The up-shot is that such trust appears to be more or less a function of how well the economy is doing. Good economic times translate into warm and fuzzy feelings on the part of Americans towards their government, and vice versa.

Also, if you consider the way trust in government has fluctuated over the last few decades, it’s hard to account for those fluctuations with anything other than the economy.

Political polarization doesn’t explain it, because polarization has been on a steady and uninterrupted upswing since the 1960s. The fluctuations in trust don’t track with that trend. And while he doesn’t have similar data on the subject of lobbyists and special interests, I’m inclined to agree with Sides that their influence has probably been on a steady rise over the last few decades as well. So the only trends that track with fluctuations in trust are fluctuations in the economy. All told, it accounts for 73 percent to 75 percent of the variance since 1964.

Via Andrew Sullivan, Dan Drezner reacted with some thoughts as to why this doesn’t get talked about more in the media:

I suspect it gets less attention because its a structural factor that is largely beyond the control of politicians.  It’s also boring.  It’s like a diet guru simply saying “eat less and exercise more” when asked what the trendy explanation is for how to lose weight.

Sullivan had some similar thoughts of his own. I think there’s probably something to this, but I also think another reason is that the implications of this data simply don’t sit well with our self-conception as Americans.

Our civic, media and political culture likes to think of politics as something voters are meaningfully engaged in – or at least something they can and should be meaningfully engaged in. That voters embrace or reject politicians because of their ideas and agendas. We like to think that politics plays out the way it does because people are engaged with the issues at hand, but this data implies that the truth is probably much more mechanistic. How Americans vote has more to do with unthinking and substanceless reactions to the stimuli of the economy that it has to do with actual thinking engagement. Which means it’s hard to claim that when Americans lose trust in government, or more accurately in a particular Congress and/or president, it’s because they’ve rendered a meaningful judgment on the policies being put forward by that government. And that’s something no one – not reporters or the media talking heads and certainly not the voters – wants to admit, because it undercuts our romantic notions of a democracy run bottom-up by an engaged and thoughtful populace.


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