For Whom Trust Matters: Attitudes Towards the Role of Government in an Era of Partisan and Income Polarization (1987-2009)
Seminar on Conservative Politics
Center for European Studies, Harvard University, UNITED STATES
Scholars have argued that one of the reasons why Americans tend to oppose redistribution more than elsewhere lies in their low levels of trust in the federal government and a peculiar culture of beliefs in “limited government” (Hetherington 2005; Lipset 1996). The literature has also assumed that trust is highly instrumental to conservatives and wealthier Americans in order for them to support government intervention as we ask them to sacrifice their ideology or their self-interest (Rudolph and Evans 2005). By using Pew data from 1987 to 2009, I report evidence that the very way partisans and income groups form and connect their trusting or distrusting attitudes to their opinions about redistribution might be biased and highly dependent on the partisanship of the presidency. The patterns shown for poor Republicans and richer Democrats at the mass level seem to mirror the advantage of the conservative framing of redistribution at the elite level. It also offers an explanation for the consequential uneasiness of Democrats’ usual response as their coalitions seems divided along income lines. These results imply that rather than a cultural component of the American ethos, distrust in the federal government at the mass level appears to be context-dependent and rationally updated by partisan and income groups along with their opinions about redistribution, thus spurring potentially consequential but uneven effects on policy-making over time.