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Why Washington doesn’t work

/ Managing Editor - November 5, 2015

Editors’ note: In this archival post, first published on Nov. 5, 2015, Good Authority editor John Sides interviewed the authors mentioned below about their then-new book.  

The political scientists Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph have a new book: “Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust, and the Governing Crisis.” One reviewer, David Maraniss, calls it “a compelling and smoothly accessible work that reveals more about the troubled condition of American politics than any presidential campaign tome.” Hetherington and Rudolph kindly answered some questions via email. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

John Sides: Your book starts with a puzzle: why it is that political leaders are so ideologically extreme when the public is so moderate? In other words, why doesn’t the public punish leaders for being so out-of-step? Part of the answer is what you call the “polarization of political trust.” What does that mean?

Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph: People’s assessments of their political opponents have grown incredibly negative. One manifestation of these strongly negative feelings is the complete collapse of partisans’ trust in government when the opposing party is in charge.

During the Obama years, for example, it has been common for fewer than 10 percent of Republicans to express trust in government. When we asked a national sample in 2010 whether they trusted the government in Washington “just about always,” “most of the time,” “only some of the time,” or “never,” more than 50 percent of Republicans said “never.” Only 2 percent said “most of the time,” and not one said “just about always.”

As a result, people are willing to vote for strong ideologues in their party, even if it is less than ideal, because they dislike and distrust the other party so much.

JS: Let’s take a look at this graph from the Pew Research Center. It plots the percent of people who say you can trust the government “just about always” or “most of the time.” The results span 1958-2014 and are broken down by party: Democrats (blue), independents (green), and Republicans (red). It’s similar to a graph in the first chapter of your book. What are the big takeaways here?

MH and TR: The most important takeaway is just how close to 0 the red line has been during the Obama years and how close to 0 the blue line was in the last few years of the Bush administration. Numbers this close to 0 (the pole of the range) almost never happen in survey research. This is a stark manifestation of the polarized feelings people have about their political opponents. The graph shows that things weren’t always this way. When Ronald Reagan was president, 30 to 40 percent of Democrats expressed trust in government. When Bill Clinton was president, 25 to 30 percent of Republicans expressed trust in government.

This lack of trust has important consequences. We show that partisans from the party opposite the president must trust the government to be willing to give the president’s ideas a shot. If they do, consensus can form in the electorate and members of Congress might feel pressure to act. If not, consensus does not develop across party lines, and members of Congress feel no pressure from their constituents. That is the story today.

Second, Republicans often trust the government a lot, even though being anti-government is supposed to be part of what makes them Republicans. When one of their own occupies the White House, they are quite pro-government. The only times trust in government among any of these partisan groups has cleared 50 percent since Watergate have been among Republicans when Reagan and the Bushes were president.

Third, trust is higher when foreign policy is salient; people like and trust the parts of government that deal with foreign affairs (such as the military) a lot more than those that deal with domestic affairs. Note how high trust was during the scariest days of the Cold War in the late 1950s and early 1960s and how high it got in the couple years just after September 11, 2001. When we think about the government as protecting us, we trust it.

JS: It seems as though there was a sharp decline in polarization toward the end of the Bush administration, when trust among Republicans plummeted to a level almost the same as Democrats. What do you think happened?

MH and TR: When the economy started to founder midway through Bush’s second term, public attention shifted away from the government’s successes in keeping Americans safe from terrorists to an economy that was going down the tubes. Neither Republicans nor Democrats were happy with how the government was dealing with the financial crisis. When people perceive government is performing poorly – and it would have been all but impossible to reach a different conclusion in 2007 and 2008 – trust drops. It is rare for Republicans and Democrats to agree on much of anything these days, but they did agree that the economy was a mess and government was failing to make it better.

JS: If trust is generally more polarized now, what is driving that?

Two things are at play. The most important one is that partisans absolutely hate the other party these days. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Republicans mildly disliked the Democratic Party and Democrats mildly disliked the Republican Party. Now those feelings are intensely negative.

To put the intensity into some perspective, Republicans these days express more positive feelings toward “atheists” than the “Democratic Party.” Democrats express much more positive feelings toward “Christian fundamentalists,” their social issue antagonists, than the Republican Party. When you hate someone or something, whether it is your boss, a neighbor, or a political party, you do not trust it.

In addition, these negative feelings are causing Republicans and Democrats to perceive objective conditions increasingly differently. In 2012, for example, most Democrats thought the economy was getting better, but most Republicans thought it was getting worse, despite the fact that all Americans experience roughly the same economy. Democrats’ positive opinion about the economy pushed their trust in government up. Republicans’ negative opinion about it pushed their trust in government down. Perceptions of economic performance have always differed a little by party depending on who was president, but now those perceptions differ fundamentally. White is black, and black is white, depending on which side you sit.

JS: People usually interpret high levels of trust in government to be good for liberals, since presumably it’s liberals who want the government to do more. But you argue that high levels of trust in government can help conservatives too. How?

MH and TR: Political trust is an indicator of citizens’ willingness to give the government’s policy ideas a chance. That makes political trust a resource that can be just as useful for bolstering conservative policy initiatives when conservatives are in power as it can be for liberal ones when liberals are in power.

The Bush administration, for example, sought to expand military action in Iraq and expand the war on terror. Endorsing such government action requires people to trust government, particularly those who are ideologically predisposed to oppose such policies. Because conservatives are predisposed to support greater military action, supporting Bush’s foreign policy did not require them to sacrifice their ideological principles.

But supporting Bush did impose ideological costs on liberals. As a result, political trust affected whether liberals would support Bush’s foreign policy. Liberals who trusted government during the Bush presidency were much more likely to support the war in Iraq, increased spending for the war on terror, and increased defense spending. That provided Bush a lot of leeway to pursue these policies. There were plenty of liberals and Democrats in the electorate pressuring their representatives to support things like the Patriot Act and intervention in Iraq.

JS: Let’s talk about the Obama administration. You argue that low levels of political trust complicated two of Obama’s signature initiatives.

MH and TR: Low trust in government eroded public support for health care reform and economic stimulus. Both started out as very popular with the public. But by the time they came to a vote, public support had dropped, which, in the case of Obamacare, required legislative chicanery from congressional Democrats to enact it and, in the case of the stimulus, led to a final package watered down with nearly as many less effective tax cuts as more effective spending increases.

The stimulus is particularly interesting. When the economy is bad, trust tends to be low because people are dissatisfied with how government is performing. Unfortunately for Keynesians, trust is important if people are to support running deficits and increasing government spending during hard times. Families have to cut spending, so it takes trust to think government ought to do the opposite.

Interestingly, we find that people’s trust in government is unrelated to their support for cutting taxes as stimulus. As a result, tax cuts were much more popular than spending increases in a low trust environment, which provided Republicans an advantage in crafting a final package.

JS: You argue that lower levels of trust may actually be the norm, and that the higher levels we observed in the late 1950s and early 1960s might be the exception. So is there any way to increase political trust?

MH and TR: Changing opinions about “the government” is likely next to impossible. When we gave people information about things that government did well, we found that it had little effect on how much trust people expressed. Trust among Democrats increased a little bit, but it didn’t among Republicans.

But there might be workarounds. People trust specific parts of government, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Defense, much more than they trust “the government in Washington.” Even with politicized agencies like HHS and EPA, people expressed roughly the same amount of trust that people expressed in the government as a whole when Ronald Reagan was president. This may help explain why Americans complain so much about the government in general but do not want to do away with much of it.

Those who seek to use government to solve problems would be well served to talk about its specific parts rather than the government as a whole.

JS: Back to the title of the book: “Why Washington Won’t Work.” Can anything make Washington work again?

MH and TR: We are pessimistic. Americans are polarized in their feelings about the other party rather than some set of overarching ideological principles.

If it was ideology, there are plenty of things that policymakers could come together on. For example, passing a highway bill or a farm bill would not be so hard.

But when polarization is based on strong dislike and deep distrust of your political opponents, you don’t want anything good to happen to them, no matter what.

As a result, Americans will likely continue to put up with the gridlocked politics in Washington. If it robs their opponents of victories, partisans seem willing to accept the collateral damage. The fact that anti-Washington figures like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz are consistently combining for about 60 percent support among Republican primary voters seems to support our conclusions.

Note: Updated on Sept. 15, 2023.