Is Trust Possible in a Polarized Age?

Strong and fair legal and political systems, contact across divides, and economic security all help

Kevin Vallier
Aug 29, 2018 · 5 min read
“Hands Across the Divide,” Irish sculptor Maurice Harron. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What is trust? Political scientists and economists have been thinking about this question for decades, and the literature they have created is complex, rich, and deep. Researchers not only define different types of trust, but also develop means of measuring it in surveys and experiments and construct models to explain how such trust is created and maintained. Reviewing the research, as we will see, shows that there are institutional factors that create trust in society and government. This is fortunate, because it means there is room for optimism despite the widely known fact that trust in both society and government is declining in the United States.

In my review of this literature (read the full version here), I come to two main conclusions: First, social and political trust are critical for sustaining a diverse social order, but social trust is more important than political trust. Second, liberal, democratic market institutions, when people believe they are working, play a modest role in sustaining social trust and a large role in sustaining political trust. We can conclude, then, that societies with liberal democratic institutions are part of a positive feedback loop of trust, where political and social trust help contribute to institutions, and institutions contribute further to trust, even when diverse people disagree.

Trust researchers have identified two related but distinct conceptions of trust. Social trust, also called generalized trust, is trust in strangers. It concerns the extent to which you trust those you don’t know well to do the right thing. In my view, social trust is trust that people will abide by social norms — publicly recognized, shared social rules that people both expect one another to follow and think that everyone morally ought to follow.

Do you need to share strangers’ ideology in order to trust them? Fortunately, no.

We do not need to know whether a person is liberal or conservative to know whether we expect them to stop at a red light or not to steal your phone if you accidentally leave it at Starbucks. But we generally want social trust to be sustained for the right reasons. Pouring the “trust hormone” oxytocin into the water supply might make people more trusting, but it is not a good way to promote social trust.

Political trust is a bit different. Political trust can be understood to include trust in government broadly or trust in democracy, as well as trust in more specific institutions and groups, such as the civil service, parliament, and particular elected officials. Unlike social trust, political trust is not an unalloyed good. Democracies depend on a certain degree of political distrust of political officials and political parties. However, if we distinguish between political trust in government and democracy and political trust in parties and elected officials, we can offer a finer-grained analysis, according to which broad trust in democracy and government is good, but a certain degree of distrust of particular officials and parties is also desirable. We want people to be general political trusters and specific political distrusters.

What you think you know about social and political trust may be wrong. Here are some examples.

Despite widespread belief to the contrary, there is at best a small negative correlation between a society’s degree of ethnic diversity and the level of social trust it enjoys. While ethnic diversity can bear negatively on trust, this is usually due to lack of contact and local segregation. When different types of people interact more, there tend to be higher levels of trust among them.

Some have convincingly argued that societies with a high level of social trust tend to be more supportive of policies where wealth is redistributed because they see it as fair rather than as wasteful or as a reward for sloth. Such redistribution, in turn, reduces economic inequality.

When people feel they are doing well economically, they have higher levels of political trust, not social trust. Instead, the correlation between social trust and economic growth is likely due to the fact that high levels of social trust enable people to engage in more exchanges due to lower transactions costs.

The evidence clearly shows a close connection between higher levels of social trust, lower levels of corruption in the legal system, and other indicators of reliable adherence to the rule of law. A general ethos of respect for equal rights seems likely to sustain both social and political trust. Even if we doubt the moral motives of others, a public commitment to enforcing legal and constitutional rights helps people believe the system is trustworthy. This, in turn, cycles back into the feedback loop reinforcing trust-generating economic and political institutions.

As long as leaders manage corruption and economic performance effectively, authoritarian types of governments can actually enjoy high levels of political trust; however, democracy can help political trust all the same. In general, observed compliance with political norms by officials, especially in the civil service, will tend to increase political trust of some varieties, as will shared norms of citizenship where citizen involvement increases support of political institutions. In particular, when citizens feel that government officials treat them fairly, they are more likely to be politically trusting.

All of this points to a path forward.

There’s evidence that policies aimed at reducing economic and ethnic segregation will promote social and political trust. Overcoming the challenges of diversity is achieved partly through encouraging diverse people to interact with one another regularly in all walks of life.

If we want to sustain social cooperation in diverse societies and reap the benefits, we need policies and institutions that maintain high social and political trust in democratic government generally, while allowing for a modestly high level of political trust in particular politicians and political parties.

We can do this by protecting liberal rights, such as freedom of association and freedom from discrimination and segregation. We can do this by protecting democracy, which helps to produce less corruption and better economic and institutional functioning broadly. We can do this by protecting the rule of law, which reduces corruption and improves economic performance. And we must also make use of markets and social insurance to ensure that the economy performs well for everyone and protects most people from being exposed to dangerous, trust-destroying economic and social risks.

This post first appeared in Trust Issues, a monthly magazine developed by, where it was published on June 26, 2018. It is adapted from “Social and Political Trust: Concepts, Causes and Consequences,” by Kevin Vallier, professor of philosophy at Bowling State University, and is part of a white paper series on media and democracy commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy…

Kevin Vallier

Written by

Professor of Philosophy & Author of Trust in a Polarized Age (Oxford UP 2020) //

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

Kevin Vallier

Written by

Professor of Philosophy & Author of Trust in a Polarized Age (Oxford UP 2020) //

Trust, Media and Democracy

People need trusted news and information to make democracy work.

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