English title: In what we trust? A multi-level study into trust in parliament as an evaluation of state characteristics

Author(s): Tom van der Meer -

Language: English

Type: Journal article

Year: 2010


A basic level of trust in the political system is considered to be the cornerstone of modern-day democracy. Consequently, scholars and politicians have been concerned with low or declining levels of trust in political institutions. This article focuses on trust in parliament. Many theories have been offered to explain cross-national differences or longitudinal changes in trust, but they have not been subject to systematic empirical tests. This article aims to fill that theoretical and empirical gap. I conceptualize trust in parliament as citizens’ rather rational evaluations of the state—citizen relationship along four dimensions: competence, intrinsic care, accountability, and reliability. Next, I relate state characteristics to each of these four aspects, and hypothesize how they might affect political trust. These hypotheses are tested simultaneously by multi-level analysis on stapled data from the European Social Survey 2002—06. The tests show that three factors explain very well the cross-national differences in trust: corruption, the electoral system, and former regime type. Somewhat surprisingly, economic performance is not related to trust in parliament. Although the analyses do not explain changes in trust across time very well, they at least dismiss some of the existing explanations. Points for practitioners: This article describes to what extent levels of trust in parliament differ across countries and change across time, and tests several explanations for comparatively low or longitudinally declining levels of trust. It offers practitioners a theoretical approach to make sense of trust issues by distinguishing four trust aspects. Moreover, it shows that objective state characteristics are crucial in explaining cross-national differences. Widespread perceptions of corruption are most harmful to trust in parliament, while democratic rule and a proportional electoral system are beneficial. Equally important, actual economic performance is unrelated to trust. Institutional designs that emphasize care and integrity appear to be more beneficial than ones that emphasize competence and performance.

Volume: 76

Issue: 3

From page no: 517

To page no: 536

Refereed: Yes

DOI: 10.1177/0020852310372450

Journal: International Review of Administrative Sciences

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