Trust in the State

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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62 Responses

  1. Tod Kelly says:

    My guess is similar to yours, though somewhat different.

    I think “Trust in Government” is a more often than not a stand in for “Agree With What the Government Does.” I have long argued that conservatives, for example, don’t actually distrust government more than liberals (though this is certainly the phrasing they use). Rather, I think they dislike the federal government because those government agencies/polices/laws that don’t allow them to do what they might prefer tend to be federal. This is why I don’t actually see it as a disconnect when they support a GOP congress or WH administration spending money or increasing its own power.

    Similarly, I when someone says they “trust” state or local government more, what they are really saying is that their own state or local government is more likely to act accordingly to their preferences.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      If you had asked me, prior to seeing the results, I would have predicted along those lines. But if that were the case, I think a lot of the states would have more similar ratings (tracking with the margin of party preference). States like Massachusetts wouldn’t be at the bottom because it tends to have a liberal population and a liberal governor. Ditto California, New York, and for that matter Louisiana (though, as with Illinois, there are other issues there). So to my somewhat pleasant surprise, there seems to be something else at play here. On the other hand, the floor and ceiling probably are at least partially influenced by partisan or ideological preferences (though some of that is going to be people who will never admit to trusting any government at any level, and those who view trusting the government as a duty of sorts lest they be confused with the first group).

      If I were really ambitious, I’d do a statistical analysis of vote percentages for the majority party in each state, governor approval ratings, and so on.Report

    • zic in reply to Tod Kelly says:


      I also think there’s a direct correlation between ‘trust’ and competency of government services. If you have to wait in line for 3 hours at the DMV, trust declines; if it your experience is quick and easy, trust increases.

      Local towns, where people generally have the most direct experience of government (schools, roads, garbage, water, building permits, elections) are directly dependent on local taxes; as mistrust of the federal government grows, local taxes are the most direct target, decreasing the ability to deliver these services, and increasing mistrust. . . and so we spin.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to zic says:

        The DMV example is kind of weighted by expectation, though. The DMV as such was open very limited hours and days when I was in the Mountain West. But people put up with it because they understand. The level of expectation tends to be higher in cities. I think that’s one of the reasons for the rural skew.

        I actually suspect that if you look at trust in state government and trust in federal, you’d actually see a mild inverse correlation as I think there is an implicit comparison. I wish they’d asked. Or maybe they did and will release that separately?Report

      • zic in reply to zic says:


        The DMV is just the cliche response.

        Schools, local law enforcement, maintenance of roads and other public infrastructure. . . when we interact with these local variations of government smoothly, I think it actually increases ‘trust in government.’ (This is why Republicans didn’t want to simplify the short-form for income taxes, no? Confusing forms helped reinforce the notion of big-government = bad?)

        But I also think asking if you trust government is, generally, a loaded question, and specifics matter. If you asked me and the first thing that popped into my head was the expansion of health-care for women, I’d probably say “Yes.” If it was war on drugs, I’d probably say “No.” The question itself, out of the blue, is state dependent.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to zic says:

        Both parties claim to want a simpler tax code. Neither wants to alienate the donors who benefit immensely from a complicated tax code.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to zic says:

        Local towns…

        One of the compounding factors is that the level at which the same government functions are implemented can be different. As an example from memory, and possibly out of date, public assistance intake in New Jersey is handled by state employees; intake in Colorado is handled by county employees. In Colorado, we have some counties that believe intake should be quick, easy, accurate and the clients treated with a modicum of respect. We also have counties that believe intake should be as difficult and degrading as possible. Which way they go is largely determined by local philosophical differences. My expectation — with no data — would be that states that delegate to counties would have higher trust results. Broadly, states that are physically big, have large rural expanses, and are younger (in the sense of when they became states).Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to zic says:

        @will-truman I think Zic was referring to a more specific story. Check out this summary.Report

  2. Patrick says:

    I think “Trust in Government” is a more often than not a stand in for “Agree With What the Government Does.”

    I think this really, really depends on what the demographic of the person answering the question.

    I’d hazard a guess that relatively wealthy folks generally don’t trust the government, that middle class folks largely trust or distrust the government based upon who is currently in charge (more or less what Tod says here), and poor folk wildly trust or distrust the government based upon their own specific interaction with the agents of the government. Given that poorer folks have had both the highest possibility to be helped directly by the government or screwed directly by it, I don’t know that their answers, as a group of individuals, will tell us much about what poor folks think of the government as a class.

    I can imagine, as well, that most of the folks who are in jail or have been don’t trust the government, even if they were guilty of whatever got them in the hoosegow in the first place. Given that this is a pretty decent chunk of the populace, I think that’s going to skew the results some.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Patrick says:

      Except that high-poverty states tend towards average-or-high, as best as I can tell. There could be a relationship between how rich or poor one feels and how they respond. Or the responses from the poor could simply be swamped by the responses of others.

      It seems like any simple axis one wants to look at this through, there are significant counterexamples. The two with the fewest counterexamples are red/blue and big/small, and both of those (particularly the latter) have some significant counterexamples. And that one is quite imperfect. But degree-of-partisanship, ethnic diversity, poverty… none of them seem to track very well.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Will Truman says:

        Except that high-poverty states tend towards average-or-high, as best as I can tell.

        Well, if you’re polling people for state residency and not correcting/weighting your poll results by demographics, you can get a poll result that represents how a minority of the state residents think of their state.Report

      • If they weren’t called, then their answers probably didn’t affect the results.

        And yeah, if we assume bad weighting skewed the results, we can disregard any poll.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Will Truman says:

        No, what I mean is, if they’re correcting for residency they’re going to get a poll that’s weighted for residency. That doesn’t mean they’re doing their job wrong, it just means that the poll doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about any given state resident.

        It would be interesting to see the raw data.Report

  3. Michael Cain says:

    If you’re looking for a large, difficult piece of statistical work to occupy you, try correlating the results with measures of how big a role small businesses play in the economy. Anecdotally, in my experience there is no group that distrusts government at all levels more than small business people. With some justification, as they are the ones most likely to run into things like state and city health codes that contradict each other, and are enforced by inspectors who don’t care what the other code says.Report

    • zic in reply to Michael Cain says:

      I completely agree with this, @michael-cain.

      And as evidence, Maine’s mistrust may stem, in great part, from this, not just from our governor. (90% of the labor force works for small biz — 50 or fewer employees; and there are only a handful of employers with > 500 employees.)Report

  4. Nob Akimoto says:

    I’d like to see this broken down by ethnic group. Because I have a very hard time believing that non-white Texans have much faith in their state government at all.Report

  5. Saul DeGraw says:

    It seems to me that for the most part states with high levels of trust in the government tend to be very homogeneous and not very urban. The exception here is Texas.

    The states with high distrust in government tend to be very urban, very diverse (in all sorts of ways), and have distinct geographical pulls and fights at the state level of government.

    Here the distrust comes in so many ways. North California and South California are constantly fighting over water rights. Upstate New York and the NYC-Metro area also haven a lot of budget fights over transportation and other issues. The NYC public transit system is notoriously underfunded compared to highways in upstate New York.

    More typical diversity also counts because people are thinking about what level of government. If you were black and in NYC, you probably distrusted the police over stop and frisk. There is also the fact that renters (who tend to be urban) seem to distrust their governments for perceiving that they encouraged gentrification and pushed out long timers.

    There is also probably a very big difference in wait times at the DMV in Brooklyn than the DMV in Boise and stuff like that.

    Now a lot of the gentrification stuff might be because of impersonal market forces but the problem with impersonal market forces is that they always effect people personally.Report

  6. North says:

    It’d be interesting to see the results if the Presidency switches hands.Report

  7. zic says:

    Perhaps it’s good to tackle states individually to get any understanding of these results; particularly for the outliers.

    Maine, you already addressed — we have a governor who’s actively governing based on the policy preferences of a minority of residents.

    Rhode Island has some serious problems with pensions:

  8. Damon says:

    I’m sorry but how long I have to wait in line at the DMV has no relation to my “trust” in gov’t. I may “trust”, in terms of expect, that the state highway guys will be out salting the roads when it snows but I don’t “trust” that the roads will be ice and snow free and that I can drive 70 mph over a bridge.

    The trust comes in gov’t where someone trusts that gov’t will operate openly, ie sunshine laws, that gov’t officials won’t use the public purse for their own, or their friends, enrichment. That gov’t employees will not conspire to attack political enemies, rig elections, commit/support voter fraud, deal with constituents honestly, etc. To that question, it fails on all counts-local, state, and federal.Report

  9. Pinky says:

    I wonder, was DC not included because it technically has only local government as opposed to state, or because the people being surveyed couldn’t stop laughing?Report

  10. Roger says:

    It seems to match up pretty well with the regulation freedom index. Remarkably well, in fact. The only real outlier is Hawaii.


    • Roger in reply to Roger says:

      Oh, and Colorado.Report

    • zic in reply to Roger says:

      @roger every one of the states I looked at had a recommendation that the state adopt a law limiting local zoning.

      I don’t get that; how does that increase freedom? We have freedom of association, as part of the 1st, so individual freedoms are not the only freedoms deemed of value. Can you explain this better to me? Because it seems like there’s a tendency to devalue the right of people to associate and regulate through community (zoning) going on here, yet that’s the place I’d most value collective action as representative of freedom. Just seems to me that urging a state law that forbids/limits local control seems odd from this perspective.Report

      • Roger in reply to zic says:

        I am not following.

        Were the freer states the ones with zoning regulations or with regulations forbidding zoning regulations? This gets confusing because we are starting to run into double or triple negatives (how do we count regulations against regulation?).

        I am not sure I have ever looked into this ranking system before, but it is a composite system combining dozens of factors on fiscal, regulatory and personal interference (such as limits on gay marriage to connect this to the other discussion).

        It really does mirror the trust map above. It doesn’t say anything on correlation or causation or whether there are mutual feedback loops.

        For what it is worth. I have read studies that indicate people with low trust tend to support a more intrusive role of the state. This can self amplify in perverse ways.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Roger says:

      Disclaimer: I think comparing these two graphs is dicey at best without knowing more about how they’re built.

      I think there’s less overlap there than you see Roger. I suspect a little observer bias creeping in.

      If you look for similarities between the two graphics, sure, you’ll spot some. But if you look for the disparities between the two graphics you’re going to start asking yourself a lot of questions.

      California, for example, has a lot of distrust in the government and a lot of regulation.
      Nevada, right next door, though, has the same amount of distrust as California, but with a lot less regulation.

      Wisconsin is 38th overall in freedom from regulation, only slightly less than Wyoming, but Wyoming is much less distrustful.

      That Freedom index page points me to some interesting musing, though. They break the regulations down by class (fiscal, personal, regulatory) which might correct for some of the splay between the two graphs.

      Nevada is #2 in personal freedom but 33rd in economic. Texas is 10th in economic, but 31st in personal. Main is #3 in personal but 46th in economic.

      Immediate hypothesis: “people” care a lot more about their economic freedoms than their personal ones. But wait, that makes no sense.

      Ah, but it does if you’re talking about how the regulations actually effect people. If your state is socioeconomically pretty monolithic, those personal freedom regulations probably don’t bother you, because you’re in the majority so they’re protecting freedoms that, you know, everybody already assumes you ought to have.Report

      • zic in reply to Patrick says:

        There’s also some overlap to other maps (bias creep probable). For instance, the free states have higher rates/fewer services for domestic violence, so women in those states are potentially less free.

        Interestingly, the only such ranking I could find of states/domestic violence was one ranking how damaging domestic violence laws were; if they included stalking or mandatory arrest for violating restraining orders.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Patrick says:

        Immediate hypothesis: “people” care a lot more about their economic freedoms than their personal ones. But wait, that makes no sense.

        Even aside from what you said in the last paragraph, why would you say this makes no sense?

        I would say it makes no sense because economic freedoms are personal freedoms. But I don’t think that’s what you had in mind.Report

      • Chris in reply to Patrick says:

        I think it would work like this: people care about the freedoms they have but others don’t and the freedoms they don’t have but others do. Whether those are economic or social ) will depend largely on who and where you are.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Patrick says:


        This is largely how I see it.


        Yes and no on whether economic freedoms are personal freedoms. Are you a majoritarian business owner or are you a member of a minority who has been frequently been subject to official and unofficial discrimination because of your minority status?Report

      • j r in reply to Patrick says:

        You can certainly talk about economic and social freedoms as two separate classes of things, but the idea of separating them and ranking one as more important than the other is a bit spurious. For one thing, all freedoms have an economic component to them. You are not likely to get any true freedom of the press if the government owns all of the printing presses. You don’t see much true freedom of association or workers rights where the government is the sole employer.

        Also, as a data point, the event that sparked the Arab Spring was the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. He didn’t set himself on fire because he wanted more political freedoms. He was trying to build a business and provide for himself, but the cops kept shaking him down and since his business was unlicensed he had no official recourse. The lack of economic rights and property rights are inextricably linked to both economic development and political freedom.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Patrick says:

        I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. Just because an economic freedom (say, the freedom to leave your property to your children) isn’t personally relevant to me doesn’t mean it isn’t a type of personal freedom. The right to have gay sex isn’t personally relevant to the vast majority of the population, but it’s still a type of personal freedom.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Patrick says:

        Can you define “personal freedom” in a way that doesn’t include economic freedoms, without explicitly excluding them?Report

      • Roger in reply to Patrick says:

        ” I suspect a little observer bias creeping in.”

        Amen to that brother.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Patrick says:

        Can you define “personal freedom” in a way that doesn’t include economic freedoms, without explicitly excluding them?

        Gay marriage? Drug decriminalization? Public nudity laws? I guess you could call the first two somewhat economic.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Roger says:

      The correlation coefficient with the regulation index is .438. With the overall index, it’s .472.

      This is in comparison to .366 for the state’s population rank, .248 for the state’s raw population, and .530 on the red/blue partisan axis (using the GOP share of the vote in 2012). The population numbers rise dramatically (to .6 or so) if you remove four extreme outliers.Report

      • Notably, the outliers in the population comparison (Texas, Indiana, Rhode Island, and Maine) are not outliers in the red/blue comparison, and vice-versa for Hawaii and Vermont (but not West Virginia because, I assume, West Virginia).Report

      • Also ran some quick and dirty numbers ( @chris can probably tell us what, if anything, these numbers suggest) and the relationship with government spending levels is really low. Whether looking at it as a percentage of income, state, state and local, or federal spending, I struggle to get above a correlation of .1.Report

      • Roger in reply to Will Truman says:

        What are you referring to on government spending levels? As a sub component of the regulatory index? Seems to me government spending per capita shows almost no correlation.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Will Truman says:

        That search was unrelated to the freedom index. Was suggested as a possible metric elsewhere. Just thought I would share the results.Report

      • Roger in reply to Will Truman says:

        Yeah. I checked that too.Report

  11. Michael Cain says:

    Last year I had reason to read through the first few pages of an issue of the Kansas City Star from 1908. Every other story, it seemed, was about government corruption. The Nebraska state treasurer was on the lam, running from embezzlement charges; the railroads had bribed the Kansas board that oversaw their rates — again; the insurance companies had bribed the Kansas commissioner that oversaw their business practices — again; the Missouri official who had been investigated the previous year and charged with giving contracts to his brother-in-law had been apprehended in Alaska.Report

    • Notably, in both the partisan and size index, as well as in comparison with similarly situated states, Kansas is a bit of an outlier in their comparatively low confidence level.

      Nebraska has unexpectedly high confidence by most metrics. I think Missouri is about right, though I haven’t looked too deeply into it.Report

  12. zic says:

    @will-truman have you seen this?

    Might be useful to your task at hand.Report

    • Roger in reply to zic says:

      Fantastic source of data, Zic.

      It shows the substantially higher trust in federal government of minorities and liberal democrats. Combining the distrust of the federal with the Blue state data lends some support to Will’s hypothesis.

      Another hypothesis, distinct but by no means mutually exclusive, plays off Will’s question of “compared to what?” This can also be answered “compared to what I would be free to do absent regulatory interference to the contrary.”

      In others words, beyond the basic role of government (defense, judicial, protecting us from coercion and deception, etc) the state increasingly steps into the role as a third party interfering with voluntary actions and interactions. As such, the question can be answered that:

      *I trust the state’s knowledge and benevolence less than I trust my own.*

      My guess is many Tea Partiers would feel this way.Report

      • Chris in reply to Roger says:

        The liberals/Democrats and, I suspect, the black vs white divide is largely a function of who is in office. Look at the numbers for Republicans during the Bush term: the highest for either party since Johnson at its peak, and well above where Democrats are now for almost the entirety of the Bush presidency.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Roger says:

        The Tea Party distrusted the Bush administration just as much! They just didn’t feel the need to say anything about it.Report

      • Chris in reply to Roger says:

        If we were going to draw some conclusions about party-affiliation and trust in government from their longitudinal chart (this one), we might, if we wanted to read too much into the numbers (like some people already are), suggest that it shows that Republicans are the more heavily partisan of the two parties, since their trust in the federal government jumps up over 50% (and at times over 60%) during Republican administrations, and then drops into the teens or 20s during Democratic administrations, while the Democrats remain under 50% (except for a brief period after 9/11, during a Republican administration), and since Clinton, mostly under 40%, even during a Democratic administration. In other words, the Democrats generally don’t trust the government, and their trust doesn’t vary as much based on who’s in office as the Republicans’ does.Report

      • Trumwill in reply to Roger says:

        Yeah, I quite would expect there to be greater amplification on the Republican side. I think there is an extent to which when Republicans think of “The government” they do tend to think most directly of the MFIC, and maybe the military (which keeps some sort of floor in tact) whereas I think Democrats take a more wholistic view including civil servants and the like.

        The only part that really surprises me about it is the relatively low ceiling for Democrats since the 70’s. Which may be a function or reminder of how comparatively tame the Democratic Party is (in words? actions?) on issues that a lot of their members care about. Or maybe something else entirely. Never forgot Watergate?

        (Yeah, I am over-extrapolating from the figures. But it’s interesting to think about!)Report

  13. Kazzy says:

    I think it is important to identify whether people were asked to note their trust in government as an abstract idea or in the specific elected officials currently or recently comprising that government. These are not unrelated, mind you, but how the question was framed and/or how people interpreted it can impact their responses. Someone might trust the government in general but not his current governor. Or someone might think her current state senator is an honorable fellow but still look skeptically at government on the whole.Report

  14. Barry says:

    “According to Gallup, trust in state government runs highest among red states in middle and western America”

    Note that these were traditionally lightly-populated (and very white) states with a strong populist and progressive/reform tradition.Report