Political trust in Europe: what it is and why it matters

Taylor, Isabel S.A. (2018) Political trust in Europe: what it is and why it matters. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Political trust is a vital resource in representative democracies. It helps citizens to forsake a degree of their personal autonomy to allow elected representatives to act on their behalf. Political trust therefore makes collective benefits possible and encourages citizens’ acceptance of policies, laws and regulations. But while the theoretical value of political trust has been widely set out, there is little empirical evidence to support the argument that political trust plays an important role in representative democracies. This is partly due to the difficulty in operationalizing and observing political trust accurately in survey research when survey respondents are unable to disentangle their political trust from their support for incumbent officeholders. The highly endogenous relationships between political attitudes further complicate attempts to identify causal relationships between related political attitudes. The papers in this thesis address these issues to demonstrate that political trust clearly has a significant and substantial impact on political life.

This thesis elaborates this problematic in its first chapter, and then provides an overview of what is reported as theoretical arguments and empirical findings about political trust in the extant literature. It then presents three empirical papers that address questions about the causes as well as consequences of political trust. A concluding chapter reflects on the over-arching conclusions from these empirical papers.

The three empirical papers in this thesis demonstrate that political trust is a distinct attitude that is separate but closely related to citizens’ support for the party in charge of their government and their views of democracy. As such, it is an aspect of diffuse support for the political system as a whole, rather than short-term assessments of government performance, actors or outputs, which influences other political attitudes. But survey research suggests that citizens appear unable to isolate political trust from other political attitudes, particularly their partisanship and support for incumbent officeholders. The first paper in this thesis demonstrates that, as well as offering a “winner’s bonus” to supporters of governing parties, partisanship moderates the impact of exogenous measures of government performance on measured levels of political trust across Europe; close supporters of both the Prime Minister’s party and other parties appear to be blinded to different aspects of government performance as they formulate their political trust. Partisanship therefore has both a direct and an indirect effect on political trust.

The second and third papers turn to the impact of political trust on other aspects of political life. Focussing on two European countries, they show that political trust influences the policy agenda and support for the democratic system of government as a whole. They also demonstrate how political trust does not have a homogenous impact across all citizens. It is particularly important in situations where sacrifice is required (it is a significant and substantial driver of support for government redistribution amongst citizens with high incomes) and at times of discontent (it ensures that citizens’ dissatisfaction with government performance does not necessarily overspill to a profound discontent with democracy).

This thesis therefore highlights how individual items in surveys purported to measure political trust generally fail to reflect that concept, because the responses to them are confounded by a variety of factors. Once a measure of political trust, as an aspect of diffuse support, is properly isolated, generally by using more advanced methodological tools, it can clearly be demonstrated that trust (as conceptualised) has a substantial impact on political life. The findings from this thesis therefore suggest that any changes in levels of political trust are likely to change the way governments operate and their relationship with their citizens.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: van der eijk, Cees
Neundorf, Anja
Keywords: Public opinion, political trust, European democracies, government performance, causality
Subjects: J Political science > JN Political institutions (Europe)
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > School of Politics and International Relations
Item ID: 53600
Depositing User: Taylor, Isabel
Date Deposited: 15 Apr 2019 09:54
Last Modified: 07 May 2020 13:32
URI: https://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/53600

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