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Many Conservatives Only Trust Government When Their Party Is in Power

New research finds that liberals' confidence in government is not affected by the party affiliation of the president. That's not true of the right.
Then President-elect Donald Trump meets Barack Obama in the Oval Office.

Then President-elect Donald Trump meets Barack Obama in the Oval Office.

Having a president with authoritarian tendencies has inspired much discussion of the norms and assumptions that undergird our democracy. One of the most obvious is respect for the legitimacy of elections. We all have to accept the fact that sometimes our party loses, and the other party gets to govern for a while.

But what happens when one side believes that more strongly than the other? That is the precarious place America finds itself in today.

A recent study finds American liberals are more willing to grant legitimacy to a conservative-led government than vice-versa. Further, it finds this is not exclusively a Donald Trump-era phenomenon, and has been the case for the past 40-plus years.

"These findings are in contradiction to the notion that liberals and conservatives are equally biased and intolerant of one another," write Davide Morisi of the University of Vienna and John Jost and Vishal Singh of New York University. "They suggest that conservatives' ostensibly principled opposition to 'big government' may apply more to Democratic than Republican governance."

Writing in the American Political Science Review, the researchers analyzed data from 48 surveys taken between the early 1970s and 2016. Twenty were conducted as part of the American National Election Studies, while 28 were part of the ongoing General Social Survey.

For the ANES studies, the researchers focused on the question "How much do you trust the Federal Government to do what is right?" Possible answers were "none of the time," "some of the time," "most of the time," and "just about always." In the GNS studies, they looked at whether the respondent reporting having "a great deal," "only some," or "hardly any" confidence in the executive branch of government.

All participants reported their ideology; the researchers noted whether their party was in power at the time the survey was conducted.

"Confidence in the government among liberals does not vary systematically as a function of the president in power," the researchers report. But it very much does for conservatives: Their trust in government is anywhere from four to eight percentage points lower when a liberal is in the Oval Office.

Morisi and his colleagues point to two likely reasons that underlie these differences. First, they note that, in recent decades, "the Republicans Party has become more ideologically intense—and unified—than the Democratic Party." Likely as a result, "Republican elites have become more ideologically extreme," moving further to the right than their Democratic colleagues have moved to the left.

Second, people on the right and left tend to think differently. The authors point to a 2017 meta-study that concluded that conservatives score higher than liberals on standard measures of dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, rigidity of thinking, and the perception that the world is a threatening place.

"It follows from all these psychological differences that conservatives would exhibit more loyalty, commitment, and tenacity when it comes to supporting government run by their own 'side,' and to exhibit more distrust, rejection, and contempt when it comes to government run by the other 'side,'" the authors write.

The researchers argue these results raise a fundamental question: "How is it possible to guarantee democratic stability if trust in the government shifts substantially—and systematically—as a reaction to the chief executive in power?"

That is not strictly a theoretical issue. President Barack Obama had a secret plan he would have implemented if Trump lost the 2016 election but refused to accept the results; Bill Maher regularly questions whether Trump and his supporters will accept a losing result in 2020 and what might happen if they don't.

As political rhetoric goes, "Beneath our differences, we're all Americans" feels rather quaint today. Perhaps it's time to once again start talking in those terms.