A good post in the open Democracy blog about the widespread belief of a secular decline in public trust of government. Apparently in the US, there may be some evidence of that – but, in Europe, evidence of a continuous erosion in citizens’ satisfaction with the democratic process is absent altogether. Rather than a continuous a decline, the European Commission’s Eurobarometer surveys reveal only trendless fluctuation, and, if anything, even upward tendencies, notably in the Benelux, France, and Italy (see Figure 2 of paper). As the author argues –
Interestingly, some outliers do exhibit persistently lower average levels of satisfaction relative to other countries, suggesting that national political cultures may result in some systematic differences, yet even this didn’t stop satisfaction from rising to historically high levels (see Italy). And, while big drops have occurred, to be sure, as in Denmark in 1985 and Belgium in 1996, these have been temporary and equally punctuated by big increases when satisfaction returned to its previous levels.
Certainly, there are times when politicians and political institutions lose the trust of the public - the parliamentary expense scandals in the UK have, no doubt, had a deleterious effect on public confidence, just as the Italian ‘Tengentopoli’ scandals did in the early 1990s, as well as the skullduggery surrounding Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Such marked fluctuations of public trust over the years show that citizens can become deeply critical of their governments. But there is little evidence that such periodic loses of public trust have led, cumulatively, to a long-term erosion of confidence in politicians, political institutions, or our democratic political systems. Rather than the decline, therefore, political scientists should concentrate on explaining the fluctuation of public trust, its ebb and flow - not just why it falls, but why it rises again. However imperfectly, citizens seem to recognize when institutional improvements take place, and trust can be renewed once the incumbents that violated it are thrown out, and that, in many respects, is what democracy is all about