The relationship between trust and political participation is more complicated and contradictory than expected
A low level of trust does not always lead to passivity. According to Maria Bäck, university lecturer in political science at the Faculty of Management of the University of Tampere, the relationship between trust and political participation is more complicated and contradictory than expected.
“Our research results showed that generalised trust raises the propensity to vote but interestingly voting was more frequent in countries with low levels of trust than it was in countries with high trust,” Bäck describes her study on political participation in twenty-five European democracies which she published together with Adjunct Professor Henrik Serup Christensen who works at Åbo Akademi University in Finland.
Trust is like
It is a common presumption that social trust increases political activity. Since previous studies had yielded contradictory results, Bäck and Christensen decided to explore two different mechanisms that might be at play; high societal trust either increases the effect of individual social trust on political participation or decreases it because people may think that they do not need much individual trust if the level of generalised trust is already high in their society.
Bäck’s and Christensen’s research showed that social trust did not have an effect on institutionalised participation, such as being active in political parties. Instead, trust had an effect on non-institutional participation including demonstrations and consumer boycotts.
“Trust on the individual level usually increases participation but this depends on the context,” Bäck says.
Generalised social trust is hard to define. It has often been said that trust works like chicken soup which Americans are known to bring to their friends when they are sick
“Social trust can be regarded as the chicken soup of society; it has been said to cure all sorts of problems there may be with democracy,” Bäck explains.
People in Southern Europe
vote despite low trust
There are countries and communities with different levels of generalised trust. In high trusting countries there may be individuals or groups of individuals with low trust, and conversely, in countries where the level of trust is low, there may be individuals who have high trust.
“Social trust may be a characteristic of individuals but it may also be a characteristic of a community or a country. We wanted to find out the effects of these two levels of trust on different types of participation,” Bäck says.
Among the European countries, the countries in Southern Europe are the least trusting. However, in some of these countries voter turnout is still high. Compulsory voting explains high turnout in some countries and Bäck points out that many things affect voter turnout in addition to social trust.
“I have spent a lot of time with my colleague pondering on the reasons for why low generalised trust could increase voter turnout. There is a need for a lot of further research,” Bäck says.
Lack of trust
may be related to populism
According to Bäck, generalised trust can work like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people want to further improve their communities by active participation in environments with high generalised trust.
The mechanism may also work the other way round: low social trust could increase a spirit of protest, making people want to replace unreliable politicians. These people do not trust political actors because they do not trust anyone else either.
“It is hard to know how that mechanism works,” Bäck adds and says that her thoughts on the double-edged sword are more speculation than based on established research
The idea of protest is close to the modi operandi of populist movements. Can the numbers describing the levels of trust be used to explain the rise of populism in different European countries?
“We cannot use these figures to actually explain populism because populism occurs in countries with both high and low generalised trust,” Bäck says.
Based on other research literature, however, it can be concluded that social trust is a significant variable when discussing populist ideologies. Bäck says that people with low social trust have been found to be overrepresented among the voters of populist parities.
“We have to remember that the rise of populism also depends on a host of other aspects besides social trust; however, an association between the two has been found both at the individual and the aggregated level,” Bäck adds.
The ideologies of many populist parties include anti-immigration sentiments which seem to be clearly linked to social trust. Countries with high social trust usually have a more positive stand on immigration. People who trust other people are also less critical of immigration.
According to Bäck, longitudinal studies would be needed in order to establish how social trust has changed and how the rise of populism is reflected in such developments.
“I am conducting a new study with doctoral student Josefina Sipinen on the effect of social trust on opinions related to immigration. I expect we will discover some links with the rise of populism,” Bäck says.
Generalised trust is a sign
of a well-functioning society
Investigating generalised trust by survey analysis is a little problematic, but using standardised survey questions is still justified in order to create a longitudinal view on how the phenomenon has developed.
Bäck says that even though measuring trust is challenging and the meaning of trust varies, social trust measured in this way is still highly relevant.
“Especially political trust may be considered as an indicator of a society that people are satisfied with. There is also empirical evidence on the effect of social trust on political trust,” Bäck says.
Whereas there is some variation in levels of trust between the European countries, Bäck estimates that the variation may even be larger between African, Asian or South American countries.
“Corruption and economic equality have a bearing on the level of trust, and I assume they also play a role in political participation. Social trust is one important aspect, but there are also other equally important characteristics,” Bäck concludes.
Text: Heikki Laurinolli
Maria Bäck ja Henrik Serup Christensen: When trust matters – a multilevel analysis of the effect of generalized trust on political participation in 25 European democracies. Journal of Civil Society Volume 12, 2016 - Issue 2.