Trust and democracy in comparative perspective

Matthew R. Cleary, Susan C. Stokes

Research output: Chapter in Book/Entry/PoemChapter

18 Scopus citations


Social scientists have become obsessed with trust. Interpersonal, social, political, institutional, intra-elite, generalized, network-specific, vertical, horizontal, or however the term trust is qualified, recent scholarship has lamented the lack of it, advocated for more of it, and (where it can be found) given it credit for any number of positive social outcomes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the study of democracy, broadly conceived. Trust is said to facilitate transitions to democracy, to help consolidate democratic regimes once they exist, and to "make democracy work"-to improve the quality of democratic governance in some tangible sense. And, it follows, scholars blame the absence of trust for authoritarianism, weak democratic institutions, and poor democratic performance. Hence Ronald Inglehart writes that societies endowed with "a syndrome of tolerance, trust, political activism, and Post-materialist values" are more likely to become democratic (2003, 51; see also 1988, 1999). Robert Putnam and many others link the quality of democracy to social capital, which usually incorporates interpersonal trust in its definition (1993). Marc Hetherington argues that "trust matters" because the lack of it in the United States has impeded "progressive public policy" (2005, 3). Other studies link a lack of trust to low levels of civic participation (Almond and Verba 1963; Uslaner 2002), alienation from the political system (Anderson and Tverdova 2001; Anderson et al. 2005), or a "crisis of democratic representation" (Mainwaring 2006).1 These studies, and the larger literatures they represent, vary widely in terms of their theoretical approaches and conceptualizations of trust. Yet they share a claim that, on some basic level, trust is important for democratic politics; where trust is absent, democracy is in trouble. But some recent scholarship has begun to treat the presumptive relationship between trust and democracy with much more caution. This new perspective challenges many of the central claims of the more traditional literature. Regarding the theory of trust and democracy, some scholars have asked whether trust is a cause or a consequence of participation in civic organizations, whether competing trust networks might heighten divisions within a society rather than moderating them (Armony 2004), and whether high levels of trust in government, perversely, produce bad outcomes and governments that are not trustworthy. Regarding the evidence on trust and democracy, critics have questioned both the measures used to gauge levels of trust and the broad set of inferences that scholars have drawn from this small set of ambiguously worded survey questions (Jackman and Miller 1996; Seligson 2002; Seligson and Booth 1993). In this chapter we examine some of these criticisms, both theoretical and empirical, focusing on the claim that trust (interpersonal or institutional) improves the quality of democracy. We show that, at least in Latin America, much of the literature linking trust to the quality of democracy is misguided; even where such a link might exist, low levels of trust are best interpreted as a symptom of underlying social and political problems, rather than a cause of weak democratic performance (see Mainwaring 2006). We conclude with some suggestions regarding the proper interpretation of common survey-based measures and the possibility of future theoretical development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationWhom can we trust?
Subtitle of host publicationHow groups, networks, and institutions make trust possible
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages31
ISBN (Print)9780871543158
StatePublished - 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'Trust and democracy in comparative perspective'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this