The long, slow crisis of eroding trust in government has come to a head. With trust in our institutions nearing a breaking point, a growing perception among both parties that opposing partisans are an illegitimate authority, and the stage set for what will likely be the most intensely disputed election results in living memory, now is an urgent moment to discuss and strengthen government legitimacy in America.

The Centre for Public Impact is therefore proud to release previously unseen survey results on the topic. In this article, we will unveil and examine the results of our legitimacy survey to understand the differing perceptions of government legitimacy among the American public and the varying causes for mistrust. Critically, we will also present findings on how we can begin to restore legitimacy to the American government in the eyes of its citizens in both the short and long term.

Methodology

The following results come from a representative survey of over 2000 Americans, using a repurposed brand-loyalty approach from the private sector. CPI specifically focused on what legitimacy means to Americans today, what shapes people’s sentiments about the government, and what drives trust in government (a proxy for legitimacy) for different segments of the population. It should be noted that this survey was conducted in 2019, prior to the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

CPI specifically focused on what legitimacy means to Americans today, what shapes people’s sentiments about the government, and what drives trust in government (a proxy for legitimacy) for different segments of the population.

‘Social capital,’ or the links, shared understandings, and trust that enables individuals and groups to work together and leverage their power for change, is a core concept of what follows. If you are unfamiliar with the term, or how it can be applied as a tool of empowerment, we suggest taking a look at this article.

Where we are united

In the next section, we will segment Americans into four broad categories, providing tailored strategies for rebuilding trust based on the characteristics and trends of each group. But before we take a look at each distinct group, it is important to note the views, beliefs, characteristics, and strategies that cut across multiple segments:

  • Prioritizes model leadership behavior (Medium Trust – Democrat, Medium Trust – Republican, High Trust): When asked to rank trust drivers, “leadership behavior” was a top result. Breaking this down further, top-ranked model leadership behaviors were honest leaders who operate in the interests of the country (not in their own self-interest) and leaders who led for all Americans (as opposed to being beholden to donors/special interest groups or focusing only on the needs of parts of America). While this was consistent across all four groups, the Low Trust group’s level of trust was below 25% regardless of behavior and is, thus, not included here.
  • Views hyper-local government as more legitimate (Medium Trust – Democrat, Medium Trust – Republican, High Trust): The more local the institution, the higher the level of trust. This finding indicates that when rebuilding legitimacy among any group in the Four Americas Trust Model, the path should start from the ground up. While this was a common trend across all four groups, the Low Trust group’s level of trust was below 25% regardless of the institution and is, thus, not included here. 
  • Values transparency and accountability (Medium Trust – Democrat, Medium Trust – Republican): Both Medium Trust groups value transparency and accountability for decisions made by government institutions.
  • Views outcomes as a core driver of trust (Low Trust, High Trust): Both Low and High Trust groups prioritize and value the outcomes that government can provide. They are interested in how government and policy decisions support their ability to to achieve positive life outcomes. Both of these groups tend to look only at the final outcome, as opposed to the systems and processes that led to a result.
  • Is comprised of young individuals (Low Trust, High Trust): Both Low and High Trust groups are notable for being young on average (there is no consistency in age for either Medium Trust group). This is important as these individuals represent the future of our systems.

The Four Americas Trust Model, and How to Restore Legitimacy for Each One

Our survey results indicate that we can broadly categorize the American population into four different groups: High Trust, Medium Trust – Democratic, Medium Trust – Republican, and Low Trust. In what follows, we will explore the characteristics of each group, why it is important to rebuild their trust in government, and how best to approach restoring legitimacy. 

While we believe the findings below can provide public servants with a place to begin rebuilding trust and restoring the relationship between people and government, it is important to note that these groups will look different in varying contexts. Any efforts to restore legitimacy must put the individuals and communities most impacted at its center. This means that listening to, engaging with, and co-creating tailored solutions alongside residents is critical to any work.

Low Trust

Who are they?

The Low Trust group is young, isolated, and economically and socially vulnerable. 

They represent around 20% of America, and, as the name implies, they have little to no faith in most every institution. Their trust drivers prioritize outcomes: they focus on what the government can deliver for them, a worldview that is centered on the perception that the government has not worked to support their ability to achieve positive life outcomes. They are extremely disconnected from institutions: members of this group are significantly less likely to belong to a church, have a partner, join the military, etc. They have low social capital, and are disconnected from society in a way that no other group is. 

Why is it important to restore trust with this group?

This group represents nearly a fifth of America, and a significant percentage of young Americans. The attitudes and isolation of this group is not only a current concern: it will likely extend far into the future. Democracy is premised on an active and engaged citizenry; a fifth of America utterly disconnecting means that they have no stake and no representation in either the government or society at large. To ensure that government is representative and works for all individuals, building relationships with the Low Trust segment is tantamount.

How can the government regain their trust and maintain legitimacy?

Government should work on-the-ground to engage Low Trust individuals in co-owning, co-creating, and co-leading initiatives that build social capital.

Any effort to restore trust in government for this group is going to be a long-term one that may not pay dividends for quite some time; however, there are tangible steps that public servants can take immediately to lay the foundation for trust-building. In the short-term, government should work on-the-ground to engage Low Trust individuals in co-owning, co-creating, and co-leading initiatives that build social capital. As these individuals tend to be isolated, building social capital is also key to encourage community building.

Longer term, efforts towards restoring legitimacy for this group revolve around making continuous and special efforts to listen and (more importantly) understand this segment’s pain points with the ultimate goal of building systems and policies that support their expressed needs and contribute to improved life outcomes.

Medium Trust – Democrat

Who are they?

This group is, as the name implies, primarily composed of Democrats and those aligned with them. 

They have medium-to-high levels of social capital, are found across the income and age spectrum, and can be characterized by a trust in local institutions and the media. Their trust drivers are focused on building and expanding bipartisan institutions, and ensuring that those institutions accurately reflect the democratic will of the people. 

Why is it important to restore trust with this group?

Any major restoration of government legitimacy will need the buy-in of both major parties and their partisans. These individuals represent the driving force behind the Democratic party, and no two-party system can long survive if one of the parties believes that the system is illegitimate. Amid the crises of 2020 and with the fast-approaching election, individuals from both the Democrat and Republican parties are priming the stage to question the legitimacy of the election’s outcomes should the opposing party win. The importance of restoring legitimacy in light of these circumstances cannot be overstated.

How can the government regain their trust and maintain legitimacy?

As mentioned in the “Where we are united” section, both Medium Trust groups value local government, model leadership behavior, and transparency and accountability for decisions made by institutions. 

In the longer term, restoring government legitimacy for the Medium Trust – Democrat group will revolve around rebuilding fair and bipartisan institutions. The data implies that this group perceives much of our existing institutions as tilted away from them, whether as a result of gerrymandering in the House or through the Electoral College. Any major effort to restore legitimacy will have to address these concerns.

Medium Trust – Republican

Who are they?

This group is, as the name implies, composed of Republicans and those aligned with them. They have medium-to-high levels of social capital, are found across the income and age spectrum, and can be characterized by a trust in Donald Trump. Their trust drivers are focused on reigning in the media, which they see as unfair and biased against them, and ensuring what they feel is accurate and fair news coverage.

Why is it important to restore trust with this group?

Any major restoration of government legitimacy will need the buy-in of both the parties and their partisans. These voters represent the driving force behind the Republican party, and no two-party system can long survive if one of the parties believes that the system is illegitimate. Amid the crises of 2020 and with the fast-approaching election, individuals from both the Democrat and Republican parties are priming the stage to question the legitimacy of the election’s outcomes should the opposing party win. The importance of restoring legitimacy in light of these circumstances cannot be overstated.

How can the government regain their trust and maintain legitimacy?

As mentioned in the “Where we are united” section, both Medium Trust groups value local government, model leadership behavior, and transparency and accountability for decisions made by institutions. 

In the longer term, restoring government legitimacy for the Medium Trust – Republican group will revolve around addressing their concerns that the media is fundamentally biased against them and their party. The absence of this trust has already allowed an alternative media ecosystem to arise, which further cemented the Medium Trust – Republican group’s distrust of the existing media. Any major effort to restore legitimacy will have to address these concerns.

High Trust

Who are they?

The High Trust group is generally young and politically independent, with a uniformly high level of social capital. This group prioritizes a government which achieves positive outcomes (that improve their life circumstances) over any other factor. The High Trust group believes that the government already has achieved these outcomes for them. 

Why is it important to restore trust with this group?

At first glance, it might seem paradoxical to worry about government legitimacy in a group that already trusts the government. However, the basis of this trust is based entirely around their belief that the government has produced favorable outcomes to them. Not only is that a fragile basis for trust, but it also notably does not include any preconditions as to how the government produces those favorable outcomes. This group isn’t particularly invested in the idea of democracy, they merely wish to have a government that produces favorable outcomes for them. They are vulnerable to populism and undemocratic appeals.

How to address their needs

Since this is a group that already trusts the government, the efforts that need to be made with this group are markedly different than all of the rest. The High Trust group needs reinforcing on the idea that democracy produces the best outcomes for all citizens over the long term, and that populism and strongman appeals ultimately produce suboptimal outcomes for most citizens, likely including them. 

The Path Forward

Informed in part by the findings of our legitimacy survey, we have developed a broader strategy around how we can work with our partners across sectors to strengthen legitimacy in the coming months. To that end, we have identified the following key areas for further study:

  • Implications of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the 2020 election. The first two topics, in particular, saw the population interacting with hyperlocal institutions in new ways under extreme stress, which could have caused attitude shifts among any of the groups.
  • Deeper examination of both the Low and High trust groups: These groups have a tremendous amount of overlap, but further study is needed to understand their similarities, determine correlation vs. causation in their relative trust levels, and cultivate more democratically healthy attitudes in each group.
  • How to engage the Low Trust group: Reaching this group of voters is an extremely complex challenge. How do you engage with a group of people who don’t belong to any institution and are generally isolated? However, this 20% of America cannot be ignored. It is imperative that further study be dedicated to the best ways to make inroads with these individuals.
  • The relationship between social capital and legitimacy: Our initial results indicate a pattern where different levels of social capital are correlated with differing attitudes towards institutional legitimacy. Further exploration is needed to understand any causal or predictive factors.
  • Unpacking complexity: As we say with all of our work, it is imperative that local contexts be taken into account when designing any solution for residents. While it is impossible to account for all local and individual contexts when designing overarching recommendations, CPI plans to gather more in-depth qualitative data that allows us to better understand our fellow citizens and, hopefully, illuminate more pathways to restoring widespread legitimacy. 

Work with CPI to rebuild legitimacy

The Four Americas Trust Model can be used as a foundation to understanding the different factors that have delegitimized the American government in the eyes of a huge portion of its citizens.

The journey to restore American’s faith in government will be complex, varied, and long. It is important to understand that there is no ‘one-size fits all’ answer. Any successful effort will require a concerted effort to include residents and understand the specific needs, opinions, and priorities of the community. While every local context and every unique individual has varying needs and priorities that must be taken into consideration in any effort to restore legitimacy, the Four Americas Trust Model can be used as a foundation to understanding the different factors that have delegitimized the American government in the eyes of a huge portion of its citizens. 

As November 3, 2020 nears, we are increasingly seeing the stark, negative impacts of deteriorating trust in government. The importance of rebuilding legitimacy cannot be overstated. Strong belief in government legitimacy is imperative to ensure civic engagement, to build and maintain stable democratic systems, and to ensure government efficacy. It is our hope that these findings provide government leaders and their allies with the information they need to begin restoring legitimacy with intention. 

We are seeking dynamic partners and funders to help us strengthen government legitimacy and enhance civic participation. If your organization is interested in government legitimacy and creating authentic connections between the public and the government, we want to hear from you! Together we can work to restore the relationship between the public and government.

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