Changes in the Nature of Trust Threaten our Democracy


Thirteen Russians have been indicted and charged with conspiring to undermine America’s electoral system by sowing discord among our citizenry through a sophisticated social media campaign of “informational warfare.”  This is an incredible development in the on-going investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 election.   For example, according to the Justice Department’s report of the indictment, one Russian Instagram account called “Blacktivist” urged its followers to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein as a way to weaken support for Hillary Clinton.  The posting ominously read: “Trust me.  It’s not a wasted vote.”  Russians have also used Twitter to take advantage of the recent mass murder in a Florida high school to encourage further division among Americans.

The ability to manipulate our electoral process and civil society, subtly or overtly, is linked to fundamental changes in the nature of trust which have serious implications for the health of our democracy.   In Who Can You Trust, scholar Rachel Botsman describes how trust between individuals has evolved through three stages: local, institutional, and the current stage she calls distributed.  Local trust existed in a pre-modern time when we lived in smaller communities where everyone knew each other.  When technological changes in the late 19th through the early 20th century brought about modern industrialized society, trust shifted to institutions, and began to be mediated by experts who functioned as gatekeepers of facts, and therefore, truth.

However, two things have combined recently to weaken the institutional stage.  First is a barrage of high-profile trust breaches across all institutional sectors including Watergate and other government scandals, child abuse in the Catholic Church, and corporate malfeasance, corruption, and negligence from Enron, to Deepwater Horizon, to predatory lending.   Second is a revolution in information accessibility brought on by the digital age that has coincided with, and helped produce, increasing polarization of Americans in terms of how they get their news about the world around them, particularly political news and views.   Social media platforms have streamlined algorithms to help many of us create what MIT scholar Nicholas Negroponte famously prophesied in 1995 as “The Daily Me”–a tailoring and filtering of information to confirm and legitimize what we already believe.

These developments have estranged us from societal institutions—government, journalism, religion, corporations, and even friends and families—and caused us to seek refuge in a new kind of “distributed” trust that Botsman describes as horizontal–mediated by technology.  Sadly, we are now more likely to trust strangers on Uber, Airbnb, or TripAdvisor, rather than other people we actually know, but who are not in our tribe.   This has left our public square barren of the social bonds necessary for a well-functioning democracy, and has opened the door wide for us to be taken advantage of by those who do not share our values, and desire to do us harm.


Political Talk Important to a Healthy Democracy

During the recent holidays, many Americans no doubt experienced some tension as they tried to navigate family time in the context of our highly-polarized political culture.  Talking politics with family and friends who don’t agree with us is always a dicey proposition.  Taking a chance that a nice family meal or vacation with friends might be ruined with a heated exchange understandably keeps many of us from wading into those waters.   To be sure, some anecdotal reports of familial ruptures owing to the recent presidential election and its aftermath underscore the threat we all face by engaging each other in political talk.   Still, many bravely soldier on trying to bridge the divide, knowing that a frayed intimate relationship is sometimes the price paid.   Others go undercover and hide their partisanship–often by claiming to be independent–thinking this might be better than revealing their beliefs.  Recent research, however, suggests that the increasing number of undercover partisans has led to citizen inaction which threatens our democracy.

The Pew Center reports that the percentage of citizens identifying as independents has doubled in the last half century from 20% in 1960 to 40% in 2014.  Considerable attention has been focused on how these citizens might vote, especially during presidential elections when their sheer numbers have the potential to swing the outcome toward one party or the other.   Many of the “undecided” voters in the 2016 election, for example, claimed to be independent, and it’s generally assumed that they broke late for Donald Trump, particularly in key battleground states, thereby handing him the victory.

But, who are these self-proclaimed independents really?   They’re often portrayed by the media as objective observers of politics, unsullied by partisanship, who carefully consider each candidate’s positions before casting a “rational” vote.  In this view, winning the election means tailoring a narrative that appeals to as many of these independents as possible.    However, political scientists have demonstrated that most “independents” consistently vote for one party—they’re not really up for grabs.  Why are so many voters hiding their party affiliation by claiming “independence” and how does this behavior affect our political system?   According to the authors of the book Independent Politics, self-described independents view the labels of Democrat and Republican negatively, so they go undercover to avoid a perceived stigma even though they regularly support one party.  This behavior is especially true for voters who care deeply about what their friends and families think of them.

The problem with avoiding partisan labels is that it translates into a reluctance to more outwardly express one’s true beliefs by wearing campaign buttons, displaying candidate yard signs, and most significantly, engaging in political talk with others.  A long line of research has shown that these simple public displays of partisanship are the most persuasive types of political participation, with face-to-face discussions being the most influential method.  If we’re afraid to talk politics in polite company, how can we ever find common ground on how to address our shared challenges?  By going undercover, so-called “independents” have weakened the connections necessary to a robust two-party system, and have helped sap the vitality from American democracy.  Why not make “talking politics” more often one of your New Year’s resolutions?  A strong democracy depends on it.


Here’s Your Chance to Rate President Trump’s First Year

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As is customary, several commentators have offered assessments of President Trump’s first year in office.    These appraisals have varied, and I encourage you to “Google” and review several for yourself.   Most of these evaluations have been offered by political elites, but since Trump’s appeal is a populist one, it’s important that average voters make their own assessments of his first year, and I invite you to do just that.

These are the rules of participation.  First, your appraisal must employ at least one of the assessment tools discussed below.  Second, your review should be 250 words or less, and third, you agree that I may use all, or parts, of your review (including your name) in a future column.  Appraisals, along with your conTact information, should be emailed to no later than January 23, 2018.   To guide your efforts, below are three analytical perspectives employed by scholars to determine presidential effectiveness.

Recall that our system of separation of powers was designed to make it difficult for any one branch to do much on its own.  Therefore, to achieve their policy goals, presidents must carefully navigate our Constitutional system of fragmented power.   In my beginning American Government course, students are introduced to ways that scholars try to objectively evaluate how well presidents are able to move their agendas.   What I refer to as “the debate between the two Richards” is a helpful starting point. In his classic book, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt argued that a president’s sole power is that of persuasion.   Translating campaign promises into policy achievements requires presidents to get Congress, bureaucrats, interest groups, courts, and/or the public, to go along with them.   Neustadt also notes that persuasion is strengthened with a clear electoral victory, and the larger the vote margin, the more persuasive a president can expect to be.  More successful presidents also bring the nation together with inspiring rhetoric and action.   How well has President Trump used the power of persuasion?

On the other hand, scholar Richard Nathan has argued that besides persuasion, presidents have other tools that can be used to advance their agendas, including the powers of executive appointments and executive orders.    How do you think the president has wielded these tools?   To aid your analysis, here are two nonpartisan sources of data.  Appointments:  Executive orders:

Finally, noted journalist Headrick Smith has argued that successful presidents are those who a) keep their agendas focused and simple, rather than sprawling, b) are able to build coalitions among opposing interests, while keeping their base of support intact, and c) are able to create and maintain a positive public image.   How would you rate Trump on these three aspects of effective leadership?   Are you thinking like a political scientist now?   I look forward to reading your reviews, and including some of your opinions from across the spectrum in a future column.


Bureaucracy’s Vital Constitutive Role in American Politics

​In 1887, Woodrow Wilson penned a famous essay calling for a new effort devoted to making American government more effective in its day-to-day administration. Modernity, immigration, and technological advancement had caused the pace of change in society and the economy to quicken rapidly, and Wilson argued these developments had overtaken government’s ability to perform its constitutional duties of promoting the general welfare and providing for domestic tranquility. In his words “it [was] getting harder to run a Constitution than to frame one.” Against the backdrop of unprecedented graft and corruption at all levels of government, he called for making its administrative affairs “less unbusinesslike” and more proficient. Thus emerged the development and acceptance of the idea that the expertise of administrative professionals in bureaucratic agencies is essential to the functioning of democratic governance.     

As we watch the formation of the Trump administration, it’s important to remember bureaucracy’s democratic constitutional role, particularly in light of signals from the Trump team that he and his advisers possess hostility and scorn for some of our federal agencies and employees. Examples of this antipathy include 1) appointing Rick Perry to head the Energy Department that he once claimed should be eliminated, 2) appointing Ben Carson to oversee HUD, though he has no professional experience in housing policy, 3) the implied threat of identifying all scientists at the EPA who have been involved in climate change research, and 4) similarly singling out those at Homeland Security and the State Department who’ve been working on anti-extremism programs.  

 ​These actions acknowledge, but potentially undermine, the way in which bureaucrats and agencies help define who we are and what it means to live in a diverse democratic society. Three characteristics help illustrate this point. First, bureaucracy is perhaps the most representative institution in our political system, certainly much more so than Congress, which is still primarily the domain of white males. Simply, bureaucracy “looks” more like America. Second, agencies, like the EPA, embody our existing policies on how to respond to communal challenges. They therefore should be expected to defend their current programs, at least to some degree, from radical encroachment, especially when fundamental rights are at stake, or when minority interests are threatened. Finally, many bureaucrats are professional experts in their fields–scientists, engineers, educators, lawyers, doctors, data analysts, etc.—who we rely on to help us figure out how to make the general statutes passed by Congress operational.  

 ​Demeaning, devaluing, and demoralizing federal agencies and their employees is not what Wilson meant by running our constitution in a “less unbusinesslike” fashion. Protecting our environment, assuring the safety of the drugs we take, our nation’s water supply and our workplaces, safeguarding our national parks, promoting cutting-edge scientific research, and upholding civil rights laws are just a few examples of how our civil servants help constitute the meaning of democracy in America regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. Efforts to undermine this vital role should concern us all.


Can We Overcome Ourselves?

​The main textbook I assign in my Intro American Politics course is titled Keeping the Republic. Perhaps you’ll recognize the title’s significance, but over the years, no student ever has. It’s a reference to Ben Franklin’s famous response to a question at the Founding about what kind of government the framers had created, a monarchy or a republic? His answer: “A republic, if you can keep it.” In the wake of the nastiest campaign in decades, one that underscored the deep chasm between Americans on many issues, it’s worth asking Franklin’s implied question: “Can we keep it?”

 The framers’ fundamental distrust of democracy was undergirded by a long philosophical tradition warning of democracy’s inherent dangers like majority tyranny, and the fact that democratic governments are prone to instability and failure. As John Adams baldly put it, “There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” Taking these learned insights and warnings to heart, our constitution writers created a system in which consent of the people is needed to form a government, but in which popular control of governing and policymaking is largely removed and insulated from the people’s frequently over-heated passions.    

 ​In various ways, though, America has continued to lurch toward a much more democratic political system than the framers imagined. Direct election of U.S. Senators, massive expansion of voting rights, and adoptions at the state and local level of direct democracy mechanisms like the initiative and referendum, have combined to not only bring the people closer to governing decisions, but have also raised expectations about what government can and should do. Standing in the way of these enhanced expectations, however, remain the structural barriers to full-throated democracy that are set forth in the Constitution, e.g., separation of powers, the Electoral College, and a bicameral legislature. Add to these design factors the emergence, and oft-deleterious influence, of political parties and interest groups (“factions” in the words of Madison), and we are left with a government that is much more paralyzed than even the framers probably would have preferred.  

 For some time now the people have latched their democratic aspirations to the Presidency. “Hope and/or change” have been consistent themes in modern presidential elections. But, while executive power has expanded tremendously over time, our President is not a monarch and “hope and change” frequently are dashed on the rocks of our republic’s inertial design of checks and balances.

 ​The framers were mostly pessimistic about our ability to overcome ourselves; if humans were angels there would be no need for government, they believed. Historical evidence on this, however, is actually better. Despite the above-noted challenges, our political history has been a steady “three steps forward, two steps backward” march toward a more inclusive and just society, with government policies adopted to meet our seemingly intractable challenges along the way. Keeping the republic requires that we continue putting our shoulders to the never-ending task of creating a more perfect union.


Election 2016: Key Explanations and Assessing Allegations of Erroneous Polls

The 2016 presidential election was highly unusual, the outcome stunned many Americans (including experts), and the results will reverberate for quite some time.    Two observations here:  A. the outcome boils down to 5 key factors, and B. the swing-state polls were technically correct.


A. Five keys to Trump’s “surprising” victory (there are other factors, for sure).

  1. Soft Polling on Trump. Due to the social stigma and embarrassment that came with admitting support for Trump, it is highly likely that pollsters did not capture the full extent of his support.  Additionally, polls can’t easily measure “intensity” of support either (and usually don’t try).   Trump supporters were more intensely supportive of him than Hillary’s supporters were of her.
  2. Enthusiasm Gap. The Obama Coalition just did not come out for Hillary.  Trump brought millions of previously-inactivated voters into the process who were highly enthusiastic.  Evidence for this can be seen in the throngs of people who attended his rallies.
  3. Exit Poll Data Concerning Voters Who Highly Disliked Both Candidates: For the most part, I will leave the digging through exit poll data to others. However, one fact that sticks out here is that 1 in 5 voters highly disliked both candidates, and they broke 2 to 1 for Trump which undoubtedly helped him at the margins in close counties/states.
  4. Trump’s Over performance Among Rural, White Voters v. Hillary’s Under Performance in Urban Areas. Trump had huge margins (often greater than 30%) across a massive swath of rural America while Hillary could not match those margins in most urban areas.
  5. James Comey’s Letter to  Congress 10 Days Prior to the Election:  This unprecedented action clearly slowed Hillary’s momentum while Trump simultaneously became a much more disciplined candidate.

B. In spite of the oft-repeated question of “How could the polls have gotten this so wrong?” the fact is that the all-important swing-state polls were actually (technically) correct. Let’s look at some data.  The table below shows the 16 swing states, the final pre-election projection average for the “expected” winner, and the outcome.   As can be seen, in every case except Wisconsin, the outcome was either within the margin of error (3-4%), or was not different from the projection even though the final margin was larger than predicted.   The outlier—Wisconsin—is probably due to a state-wide campaign blitz by Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, and Mike Pence in the final weekend, and the massive margins in rural areas produced by Trump supporters.   In the three states that were outside the margin of error, but in which the outcome was not flipped–Iowa, Missouri, and Ohio–the electorate’s demographic is much more closely aligned with the primary Trump coalition–older, white, rural and blue-collar.   Given Trump’s over-performance among this cohort, it is not surprising that these states beat the pre-election projections on totals, but not outcome.

Table 1.  2016 Swing-State Polling Data

Swing State

Final Pre-Election Poll



Trump +4.0 Trump +4.3
Colorado Clinton +2.9 Clinton +2.1
Florida Trump +0.02 Trump +1.3
Georgia Trump +4.8 Trump +5.7
Iowa@@ Trump +3.0 Trump +9.6
Maine Clinton +4.5 Clinton +2.7
Michigan** Clinton +3.4 Trump +.03
Minnesota Clinton +1.0 Clinton +1.4
Missouri@@ Trump 11.0 Trump +19.1
Nevada** Trump +0.08 Clinton +2.4
New Hampshire Clinton +0.06 Clinton +0.03
North Carolina Trump +1.0 Trump +3.8
Ohio@@ Trump +3.5 Trump +8.6
Pennsylvania** Clinton +1.9 Trump +1.2
Virginia Clinton +5.0 Clinton +4.9
Wisconsin** Clinton +6.5 Trump +1.0

**Outcome flipped.   @@indicates the outcome was outside the margin of error, but not flipped.   Data Source:


The Fundamental Basis of American Democracy

This past August, a conservative federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ voter ID law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by undermining minority access to the ballot box. This decision is a significant marker in the debate over whether everyone truly has a voice in the political process. Reasonable steps are needed to advance and protect the universal promise of democracy, and making it easier to vote is one of them. Since 2002, however, several states have moved in the opposite direction by passing new voter ID laws making voting more difficult for many of our fellow citizens.  

The justification usually offered for stricter voter ID laws is to prevent fraud. Yet in its 2014 sweeping report to Congress, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found very little evidence of fraud in the numerous studies reviewed. Indeed, the most extensive effort to identify in-person voter fraud ever conducted (by Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School, Los Angeles) found just 31 instances of fraud in over a billion votes cast! It’s no surprise then that many have called the claims of alleged fraud “fraudulent,” yet conservative state legislatures keep ratcheting up the voting restrictions. Now, Texas has been slapped hard on the wrist for doing so. The ruling may seem confusing since it was only two years ago that the Supreme Court effectively gutted much of the VRA by striking down Section 4. That section contained the formula for determining which jurisdictions needed to have changes to their election procedures pre-approved by the feds before being implemented.  

 ​Since its passage in 1965, Section 2 has applied to all U.S. jurisdictions, not just the egregiously discriminatory ones which were singled out under Section 4. It specifically prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the VRA’s listed minorities. In 1980, though, the Supreme Court ruled that to win a Section 2 challenge, plaintiffs had to prove an intent to discriminate was behind any change to voting procedures—a high burden of proof.    

 Believing this ruling undermined Section 2’s original purpose, in 1982 Congress legislated that all a plaintiff needed to demonstrate was that a jurisdiction’s voting procedures resulted, regardless of intent, in denying equal opportunities to political participation. The recent Texas law made voting extremely difficult for many citizens who had been regular voters for countless elections by requiring them to show a new state-issued-only photo ID which they’d been unable to obtain. Thus, the appeals court declared the law illegal because it resulted in these voters’ disenfranchisement in the 2014 elections.    

 ​This most recent decision, especially by a conservative court, underscores the continuing relevance of the VRA. It suggests that what Congress previously did for Section 2 it should now do for Section 4. Legislation titled the “Voting Rights Advancement Act” modernizing Section 4’s formula has been introduced in Congress to protect our right to vote—the fundamental basis of democracy. It should be passed with deliberate speed.