The American Attitude: Context Effects and the Change in Public Trust in Government (1964–2008)
Perhaps no other public opinion topic has received more attention from academics, politicians, and the media than the decline of trust in American national government. Public trust in the Leviathan on the Potomac has declined from about seventy-five percent in 1958 to a mere twenty percent before the 2010 mid-term elections. While this decline has certainly been dramatic, it is the rapid change in trust levels over short periodsthe Vietnam War, after 9/11, Hurricane Katrinathat has puzzled researchers the most. It remains an open question in public opinion research whether we should be more concerned with the overall decline in trust or the up-and-down swings in attitudes over time. Using national cross-sectional and time-series survey data, this project applies a new framework to the study of change in political trust over time. It tests the attitude priming and accessibility hypothesis by modeling the effect of media content on people's perceptions of important national problems, which, in turn, affect political trust. The findings counter the established idea that the decline in trust represents vanishing systemic support of the American political system. Building on the ideas of contemporary cognitive psychology, I argue instead that response to trust-in-government questions largely depends on the content cues at the time of attitude construction. Therefore, the level of trust should not be treated as a barometer of American democracy. Instead, it is largely a syndrome of citizen's "response to everything."