What Makes Citizens Trust Political Institutions Politics Essay

Issues of distrust in political institutions are very common in post-communist states in Europe. Even though trust is one of the key components for a successful democracy, the communist regime has left a trail of political distrust which will last for generations. When trust is low, the government cannot operate efficiently, and that creates further distrust, and a vicious circle is created (Mishler & Rose, 1997: 419). This scepticism in post-communist Europe creates a paradox, because the states want to become more democratic, and see the senior EU members as an example of democracy and a direction they should be heading to, however the distrust in political institutions slows down the growth of the democracy and declines citizen participation in politics. It is reasonable to argue that no government should have an absolute trust as it might create instability. The trust in political institutions has been declining steadily since 1991 even in Western democracies, for example in Britain the percentage of citizens who trust politicians decreased from 33 to 16 per cent. [1] In order to improve democracy in Eastern and Central Europe, political parties face a challenge of dealing with cynicism and distrust when communicating with the society. It is understandable, because many people, especially from the older generation, have lived a large portion of their life under the communist regime, and that changed their views on politics dramatically. Communist parties created various institutions such as party and trade unions, however the citizens felt it was all initiated by the state and did not intend to strengthen the civil society, but instead it was a tool to which was used to reduce the liberty of the society and create political conditions favoured by the leaders of the communist party. Instead of participating voluntarily, the citizens were forced into political participation or compliance by the communist party, and that resulted in further distrust of political institutions and destroyed free social life.

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This essay contains two main parts – in the first part theory of institutional trust will be examined. The second part will be an analysis of Mishler and Rose article, which intended to explain issues of political trust in post-communist societies in Europe. [2] In the last bit of this essay both theory and the published article will be looked upon together, and a final conclusion will be made.


It is critical to understand the theory of political trust before we can proceed with the further research. Political trust is different compared to the personal trust. In order for an individual to trust someone, he needs to know that person quite well. However, political institution is not an individual and it is difficult to develop that kind of trust. The citizens trust institutions in a different way – on a presumption that they will complete their duties as a governing body. Even though it is known that trust in political institutions has been declining steadily over the past two decades, there has been limited amount of research made purely on Eastern and Central Europe. Two main types of theories are identified which explain trust in political institutions in a different way – cultural and institutional theories.

Cultural theories explain political trust by the values and attitudes towards politics. Inglehart (1997) argued, that we form these values while we are growing up, and by the time we are eligible to vote we already have our own opinions towards politics, and it is extremely uncommon for an adult to change his political attitude completely. The trust in politics emerges from a non-political sphere, an overall life experience. In that sense, political trust is an addition to person’s interpersonal trust, which develops while we are growing up and while we interact with others. Interpersonal trust can be affected by outside sources, for example the media, which is a big part in today’s society; it can shape an individual’s opinion towards something even if the individual does not have a good understanding on that subject. Many other factors can contribute towards an individual’s attitude towards political institutions – education, parent’s social status or the overall experience with institutions while growing up. If a child is born in a family with high social status they are more likely to have better education. There has been evidence of correlation between family’s social status and the child’s trust in political institutions (Tong, 2007). Cultural theories argue that because cultural values are rooted to people when they are growing up, at least a few generations should pass in post-communist states in Europe before we can notify a significant increase in trust of political institutions. However, the trust of political institutions cannot be assigned only to the way people are brought up. Economic conditions of the state and overall well-being of the citizens might re-shape the values of the society. Because of that, the citizens can be categorised into two groups – materialists and post-materialists (Inglehart, 1998). Materialist values for a successful democracy depend more or less solely on economic performance of the state – if citizens are happy with the economic situation in the country, they are likely to trust the political institutions. Post-materialists, on the other hand, focus towards personal freedom and individuality, and therefore they might have issues of trusting political authority. Social background of the citizens is also important in cultural theory. Many post-communist states in Europe have a diverse population, and there might not be a lot of unity towards the political trust. For example, about one quarter of the Estonian population is Russian. [3] A question emerges whether the Russian population in Estonia would trust political institutions, because after the Independence was restored in 1991, the Estonian government shifted to a completely new direction and Estonia became a right-winged state. And indeed, there is a lot of tension in Estonia, as the Russians demanded that their language should be adopted as the second national language in Estonia. Despite these demands, the Estonian government did not give in, and even got tougher on Russian speaking citizens – they might lose their jobs if they do not speak Estonian. This results in a clash of interests and Russian distrust in political institutions. However, cultural theories do not state that everyone goes through the same process, and everyone has a different experience of trust in life. Therefore, we should not assume that every citizen in a social group (based on age, race, ethnicity etc.) has the same attitude towards political institutions or interpersonal trust. Cultural theories have been criticized by Fukuyama, as he stated that it is in the human nature to develop a trust for groups and individuals who often interact directly. However, the degree of interpersonal trust varies significantly among democracies, and therefore we cannot make an assumption that high trust in political institutions is necessary for a successful democracy (Fukuyama, 1999).

Institutional theories focus on the model of rule and the performance of the political institutions. If they perform well, that creates a sense of trust among citizens and benefits the democracy in the state. Institutional theories do not see the government’s performance in the past or cultural aspects of individual’s life as decisive factors on individual’s political trust, although they can influence an individual to a certain degree (Mishler & Rose, 2001:36). Unlike in cultural theories, short-time effects are stressed as highly important. Institutional theories make an assumption that citizens make rational choices by evaluating the political and economic performance of the political institutions. In that respect, citizens need to have a previous experience of interaction with an institution, or at least to have some knowledge about it. Institutional theories do not agree which factors are the most important when measuring the performance of the government. In Western democracies, they usually focus on economic conditions and policy performance, when in post-communist societies different measurements can be used. For example, the reduction of corrupt political officials or the liberalization of trade can be extremely important in post-communist states, because Eastern and Central Europeans have been oppressed for decades. By making these policy changes the governments are more than likely to receive positive feedback from the citizens, and that results in strengthening the trust of the institutions. However, institutional theories do recognize the importance of individual’s values and political affiliations. If a citizen was in favour of communism, his trust of political institutions might be decreasing, despite the good performance of the new democratic government. It is important to understand, that not everyone sees economic factors as the key priority, and that people have very different values in life, and one model does not apply to everyone. Institutional theories have a significantly different approach towards the future of the political trust in post-communist countries. Unlike in the cultural theories, institutionalist scholars believe that trust for newly formed democratic institutions can be generated in a much shorter period of time (Mishler & Rose, 2001: 33). If the newly formed government performs well economically and the citizens are happy with the new democratic system – it should not take generations to develop the trust for political institutions.

Micro and macro theories

Both cultural and institutional theories can be sub-categorised into two dimensions – micro and macro. It is important to distinguish the differences between them, because political trust is a very complex issue and these dimensions will play a crucial part in analysing Mishler & Rose publication in section 5. Micro dimension is linked with an individual, while macro dimension is focused on the society as a whole. Both micro theories state that political trust is different among individuals, due to different background, experiences or individual perceptions. On the other hand, both macro theories see trust as a value, which is shared by all members of the society (Mishler & Rose, 2001: 33). Macro-cultural theory has very limited interest in trust of individuals, because they focus on national traditions and sees society as one body, which either trusts political institutions or not. Micro-cultural theories, on the other hand, emphasise the importance of the individual within the society. Personal experiences are the main subject of focus, and the opinions on political institutions are formed by every member of the society individually. The differences between micro-institutional and macro-institutional approaches are even more significant. Macro-institutional theories are shifted towards the performance of political institutions while micro-institutional theories leave the evaluation of political performance to the individual. Both micro-institutional and macro-institutional theories have three implications. Firstly, with the accurate sampling, decent research techniques and sensibly asked questions the responses about trust of political institutions will be quite accurate on how well the system is actually performing. Secondly, if the political institutions do not have a high public trust, this can be fixed in two ways – by either lowering the public expectations for the institutions or by improving the efficiency of the institutions. And thirdly, these theories recognize an indirect relationship between trust in political institutions and social trust. This relationship is expected to be strong on the aggregate level of societies, but not on the individual level (Newton & Norris, 2000). This is because the trust of the political institutions is the direct outcome of the performance of the government, just like people trust others by knowing how they acted in the past.

Measurement of trust

Measurement of trust is a tricky concept. Most surveys, such as Eurobarometer or European Social Survey, ask only one question in order to find data on causes of political trust. That is why new approaches of theory are useful; however their implementation in current study seems to be a very difficult task. To current day different scholars use different methods and variables to measure political trust. Many different sources of literature have been used for this essay, which enabled me to see a pattern in scholars’ research on measuring political trust. However, I will be using Putnam’s model (Putnam, 2000) which, to my understanding, provided the broadest explanation and measurement of trust. This model consists of five key concepts, which need to be examined thoroughly in order to develop an understanding and measurement of trust. The reader must bear in mind that the questions asked about these five concepts were made up by me, as I found them to be the most relevant. However, in the next paragraph of this essay the authors of the examined article used different methods and different questions in their research. The five concept approach was selected because I argue that it provides the best measurement of trust the literature could offer, despite being just a recommendation.

The first concept is civic engagement, which, according to Putnam, has four dimensions (Putnam, 2000). Political activity is the first dimension, however it is impossible to justify an individual’s political involvement by asking just one question (with the exception of question “Do you engage in any kind of political activity?” and the answer being “no”). A series of questions need to be asked in order to determine one’s involvement in political activity, such as – Have you voted in your local election?, Have you recently contacted any elected official about a certain issue?, Do you participate in local council meetings?. The second dimension of civic engagement is volunteering activity, and the respondents should be asked whether they volunteer for political, cultural, religious or charity organizations. The third dimension is leisure activity, and we should ask whether the respondent is attending any group meetings, for example, a book club or football practice. Leisure activities are important, because they are the key attributes of interpersonal trust. The last dimension is the engagement with the media, and the respondents should be asked how often do they watch the news on the television or the radio and how often do they read the newspaper. The possible answers to all the questions should be based on frequency, as Putnam argued that voluntary participation in civic engagement increases the trust among the citizens.

The second concept is trust. Again, this is a tricky question and it needs to be approached with caution. The respondent should answer three questions – whether he trusts the majority of the society, whether he trusts local political institutions and whether he trusts federal or international institutions.

The third concept is social demographics, because according to cultural theory on the micro level, personal experiences are important and should have significant results in institutional trust (Mishler & Rose, 2001: 34). The questions for this concept should reveal the age, social status, gender, education, occupation and marital status of the respondent. All this information is commonly used in analysis of political trust (Job, 2005: 8).

The fourth concept is the government performance and, according to micro-institutional theory, a decent performance by the government allows the citizens to trust the institutions, as long as the needs of the society are being met. The questions for the respondents should ask do they feel any corruption in their institutions and whether they would support the decision to provide the government with more power for implementation of law and security. If the citizens are in favour of giving the government more power, it means that political institutions are generally trusted. However, this puts the citizens in a difficult position, because more power to the government leads to stricter control and therefore – less democracy.

The fifth concept is the world views and general well-being. The well-being most commonly determines whether the citizens will blame the government for being incompetent or not. If the majority of the population feels happy with their lives, that means political institutions are doing good work, and that increases the trust in society. The world views might have major consequences on political trust as well. We should ask the respondents their willingness to co-operate with the government and comply with the law. There should also be a question on whether the respondents feel overall happy or not and whether they feel secure under the current government or not. A negative response would indicate distrust in the current government.

The analysis of the publication

This section of the essay analyses Mishler and Rose article What are the origins of Political Trust?: Testing Institutional and Cultural Theories in Post-communist societies. The authors used two datasets, which were both compiled in 1998. The first dataset comes from the fifth New Democracies Barometer (NDB), and it contains data from nine post-communist countries – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania. Each country had around 1000 respondents in a face-to-face interviews. The second dataset comes from the seventh New Russia Barometer (NRB), and it contains 1904 face-to-face interviews. Both datasets used probability samples, in order to increase validity of the research.

The authors used the following question for determining the trust in political institutions:

“There are many different institutions in this country, for example, the government, courts, police, civil servants. Please show me on this 7-point scale, where 1 represents great distrust and 7 represents great trust, how much do you personally trust in each of the following institutions” (Mishler & Rose, 2001: 40).