6.3.3 Public Trust in Politicians

The legitimacy of a political system depends upon public trust in politicians as people who could and would deliver acceptable governance

As outlined in the introduction to this book, a central aim of governance is that it should be acceptable to those it affects.  In the Political Dimension of power, that requirement is a criterion for assessing the performance of politicians and political systems.  As described at the start of this chapter (6.1.2), politicians act as intermediaries between the population and public servants.  They must respond to the public’s wishes, take responsible decisions, and take management responsibility for the performance of public servants and employees of institutions.  And if people trust the government, they are more likely to comply with its requests – even if these are painful.

Public trust in politicians has declined sharply in both America and Britain, as highlighted by two reports in 2022:

Pew Research reported that “Public trust in government remains low, as it has for much of the 21st century. Only two-in-ten Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (2%) or “most of the time” (19%).”  (This compares to around 75% in the early 1960s with Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy).

Carnegie UK reported that “People see the biggest current threat to our democracy as a loss of trust (32%) followed by corruption (16%).  76% of the public in England don’t trust MPs to take decisions that will improve their lives, while 73% don’t trust the UK Government on the same measure.  46% of the public in England selected honesty and integrity as important values for the government to exemplify. Yet 61% do not believe that the current UK Government reflects these values at all, while 23% believe they ‘slightly’ reflect these values.”

It can be no coincidence that public loss of confidence paved the way for authoritarian populism in both countries, with the elections of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson respectively (  And neither leader increased public satisfaction.  Distrust in politicians is a global problem, as revealed in an Ipsos MORI poll:

The issue of behaviour which affects public trust in politicians is examined here, as it is a key element of legitimacy in a political system.  Later sections in this chapter examine related questions:

●  The pressure of trying to be popular, in politicians’ interactions with the public, is analysed at (6.4.2).

●  The issue of political donations affecting political decision-making is examined more fully at (6.4.5).

●  Safeguards to ensure that politicians behave responsibly are reviewed at (6.8.5).

The following sub-sections itemise some criteria for the behaviour that people want from their politicians:

●  Politicians should listen to those they serve and be responsive (  This is of prime importance, since they are the interface between the population and public services.

●  They should be administratively competent, personally and in their choice of advisers (  People need to be confident that that is the case, so they require ways of assessing the performance of the politicians who serve them.

●  They should be trustworthy (  Dishonesty is a serious problem: undermining trust in politics and reducing the legitimacy of political governance.

●  They should always put the interests of the whole population that they serve before any other consideration (  Serving the public is more important than party politics or their own political careers.

●  It is advisable to have political accountability for the performance of institutions, so that the public can have some influence over them (  If the army has its own sources of income, as in Iran and Egypt for example, there is no political control and democracy is impossible.

●  Politicians must be able to communicate clearly and persuasively (  They need to be able to negotiate effectively on behalf of those they represent, and they need to be able to explain policies.

The grossest failure of integrity – corruption – is dealt with in the next chapter (7.2.5).



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/633.htm.