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Crisis of trust, crisis of democracy? The consequences of low and declining political trust on the quality of representative democracy

Programmegroup Challenges to Democratic Representation

Low and declining political trust have been a prime concern of scholars, politicians, and opinion leaders across the globe for more than four decades. As high levels of political trust are widely assumed to be a necessary precondition for democratic rule, a decline is argued to fundamentally challenge the quality of representative democracy.

Decreasing political trust has been associated theoretically with increasing electoral volatility, the rise of challenger parties, political stagnation, the breakdown and reform of political institutions, and ultimately with undermining the stability of democratic rule itself. Despite vast popular and scholarly attention to low and declining political trust, and despite widespread assumptions about its fundamental consequences, systematic empirical knowledge about these consequences is strikingly absent. Fundamentally, the question whether low and declining political trust affect representative democracy remained unanswered.

This research project aims to subject assumptions on the effects of low and declining political trust to systematic empirical tests, and to identify the relevant actors and mechanisms that bring about these effects. It meets these aims through three linked sub-projects about

  1. the macro-level effects on the regime’s institutions,
  2. the meso-level effects on the political and societal elites that propose policy, affect public opinion, and mobilize voters, and
  3. the micro-level effects on citizens’ law compliance and support for democratic reform.

To test causal relationships and clarify mechanisms, all sub-projects employ a mixture of state-of-the-art qualitative and quantitative data-analysis techniques, including time series analysis, discourse and content analysis, elite interviews, and survey experiments.

This project pioneers academic understanding of the democratic implications of political trust by providing an integrated theoretical framework and employing decisive empirical tests. The outcomes will stimulate informed professional and public debate on political trust, and offer valuable information to policy makers and opinion leaders for their political and journalistic priorities and (communication) strategies.

NWO Vidi grant

Project duration: October 2016 - October 2021

prof. dr. T.W.G. (Tom) van der Meer

Principal researcher