What Have You Done For Me Lately? Using Elections to Rebuild Trust

The leaked draft Supreme Court opinion on Roe v Wade roused rage from both left and right. One reaction has been common to both sides – more democracy-eroding cynicism about our government.

By creating a framework of laws and norms for setting priorities and making decisions, governments help different groups interact with each other. Because government plays this role, low trust in government is linked with greater prejudice and polarization.

It’s a vicious circle. We’re cynical about government, which lowers our trust in other people, which further lowers our trust in government, because some of those other people are the government.

Happily, we have a powerful moment to act. Primary elections are occurring now across the nation. As we interact with and evaluate candidates, we can demand –- and reward –- behaviors that will help rebuild our trust in institutions.

Pollsters and researchers have been able to chart what creates or undermines peoples’ trust in institutions. The list is familiar, as they’re the stuff of dinner table griping. Politicians who make big promises and don’t deliver. Officials who speak out of both sides of their mouths. Council members who dole out favors to cronies.

These gripes point to what researchers have identified as five drivers of trust in institutions: responsiveness, reliability, integrity, openness, and fairness. These qualities are what we citizens need from our government. They are also how we can evaluate political candidates.

Americans’ worries about the openness, integrity, and fairness of our government have been in the news lately. We’re talking about how well officials have handled providing information about Covid and vaccines, whether or not politicians act according to the moral stances they preach, and who is served and not served by our court system. It’s good that we’re talking about this, and even better if we ourselves act.

Transparent government is a key element of trust in several surveys noted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This makes sense. Humans are wired to crave information about our situation, as it helps us control our fate. Transparency includes acknowledging what is not known – something that is always likely in our complex, rapidly changing world.

During the primary season, when candidates are seeking our votes, we can and should demand speech and action from them that will rebuild trust in our institutions. Some of the things to analyze include: do candidates discuss their policy plans fully (openness) or rely on vague slogans? Is their desire to hold office part of a personal history of working for the common good (integrity) or is it simply self-aggrandizement? Do they seek to work on behalf of all their constituents (fairness) or only a certain group?

It’s up to us to put people in office whom we can trust, so that government can work for all of us. We have that chance — both now during primary season and again in November.

Melinda Burrell, PhD is a humanitarian aid worker who studies polarization and trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources on cross-divide engagement.