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  1. Democracy
11 February 2022

How the Republican Party is undermining trust in public life

Corrosive public attitudes are the culmination of 40 years of the party's relentless anti-government rhetoric.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – The percentage of Republicans who say they have at least some trust in national news fell to 35 per cent in 2021. Around two-thirds said the former president Donald Trump’s conduct around the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 – committed by his supporters over an election Trump denied he’d lost and tried to have awarded to himself – was not wrong. According to one poll last autumn, while 90 per cent of Democrats had been vaccinated, only 58 per cent of Republicans were.

Many Americans who identify with the Republican Party, then, do not believe what they read in the news, or in the facts presented in front of them, or in the seriousness of a once-in-a-century public health crisis. Many Republicans do not trust in public life.

There are many reasons for this, and they are not necessarily the same for each person. And I do not want to downplay the media’s own role in the lack of trust that readers, listeners and viewers have in it. But after enough studies and surveys, one does have to ask whether Republicans’ lack of trust in public life is due in part to Republican politicians themselves.

“The Republican Party’s basically been running against the idea of government as a force for good going on 40-plus years now,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the Political Reform programme at the New America think tank. “In many ways what we’re seeing now is really the culmination of four decades of continued anti-government rhetoric.”

For decades, the Republican Party has campaigned against “big government”. Its supporters would say that they do not want government unduly involved in people’s lives. Critics would contend that, actually, they do want to get involved in people’s lives – restrictive abortion legislation is hardly unintrusive – but do not want to pay for or promote social programmes that would enhance the American social safety net. The Wisconsin senator, Ron Johnson, provided a neat example recently when he said that he was against legislation that would help American families pay for childcare, saying that it isn’t “society’s responsibility to take care of other people’s children”.

Republican leadership, in other words, has tried to push the idea that government couldn’t solve people’s problems. One straightforward way to undermine the idea that it could, Drutman explained, was to undermine trust in government itself.

“This is not to say that political elites in both parties don’t use language that erodes trust when it’s advantageous to them – they do,” said Julia Azaria, associate professor and assistant chair in the department of political science at Marquette University. “But such rhetoric is currently more in line with Republican goals, specifically to push back against regulations and government programmes, and most recently, Covid restrictions.”

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Are there specific sectors where that was especially true? Electoral integrity? Climate change? The pandemic?

“Health and elections are probably the most salient in the sense that they are fairly new points of distrust and polarisation – and they are both, at least during this pandemic, truly collective enterprises,” wrote Azaria.

Drutman said the principle was consistent across the board. The point wasn’t to encourage scepticism in one individual area, but to “discredit government as a source of legitimate authority”.

By undermining the idea that the government has any authority – particularly the idea that the government when run by Democrats has any authority – “you pave the way for violence”.

“A distrusting public is also more likely to take matters into its own hands when it feels things are moving in the wrong direction,” Charlotte Hill, a researcher and lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email. “So long as trust stays at these historically low levels, we should expect more outbursts and even violent attacks like we saw last year on January 6th.”

Republican officials have been accused of flirting with that violence. On 4 February, the Republican National Committee (RNC) censured Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both Republican members of the House of Representatives, for participating in the House investigation into the 6 January storming of the Capitol. The RNC said Cheney and Kinzinger were involved in “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse”. (Ronna McDaniel, RNC chairwoman, later clarified that she did not mean those who physically entered the building, but “ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol”, apparently drawing a distinction between those who said the election was illegitimate and those who stormed the Capitol over that belief.)

There are, it’s true, individual Republican politicians who do not support this. Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah (and McDaniel’s uncle), spoke out against the RNC for censuring Cheney and Kinzinger. And Drutman, author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America, said it’s possible that the Republican Party could split: “particularly if we change how we do elections to allow another party to emerge through [a] proportional voting system.”

Hill agreed that changing the electoral system to allow for proportional representation “would ultimately create new political parties and incentivise them to work together to solve problems, rather than just demonising and obstructing the other party’s political agenda”.

But a fundamental change to the system is, at least in the short term, unlikely. What about the Republican Party trying to restore trust?

“It’s really hard,” Drutman said, “to see how the Republican Party comes back from the brink.”

[See also: Politics of insulin reveals the sickness of US health system]

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