CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
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Educating the Public When People Don’t Trust Each Other

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts by CIRCLE, which evaluated several initiatives funded by the Democracy Fund to inform and engage voters during the 2012 election. Our posts discuss issues of general interest that emerged from the specific evaluations. Join CIRCLE for an ongoing discussion of the posts using the hashtag #ChangeTheDialogue.


Although low trust for Congress is widely known, it may be just as significant that “a dwindling majority (57%) [of Americans] say they have a good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions” (Pew Research Center, 2007). That trend is consistent with a long and steady decline in generalized social trust, or trust in fellow citizens.

If most people trust their fellow citizens but not the government, they are open to populist forms of political reform, such as referenda, recall, and transparency laws. If most people trust the government but not the people, they may want to consolidate power in the hands of political leaders. But if they trust neither, any reform agenda has a difficult path, and restoring trust in fellow citizens emerges as an important precondition of reform.

When we asked a representative sample to make open-ended comments about today’s political advertising, many respondents blamed voters for deceptive rhetoric, often describing their fellow Americans in scathing terms. They said, for example:

  • “Most people are sheep, the politicians know this and use propaganda to further [their] own ends. But not all of us are sheep, I try not to play into [their] bullshit.”
  • “Allowing sheeple [people who act like sheep] to vote reduces elections to pure pandering.”
  • “Deceptive advertising is reprehensible and ugly, and its popularity today reflects the American public’s inability or unwillingness to think critically and objectively.”
  • “Most American people believe everything they see on TV and do not take the initiative to research what they are hearing to ensure its validity. This results in the wrong people being elected to offices- people who make our situation a lot worse instead of improving it.”
  • “It’s a sad state of affairs that the political advertising used today is effective because of a largely ignorant electorate.”
  • “The general public doesnt know the difference between propaganda and rhetoric and I find most people too lazy to to research topics that they dont understand or dont know what a law is, they just blindly trust the person to be telling the truth.”
  • “The political ads are of low quality because their target audience is of low quality ….”
  • “There will always be deception in Politics. How else are you going to get a mass amount of ignorant and uneducated people to follow you?”

We coded only 7 percent of all the open-ended responses as critiques of the American people, so we cannot conclude that this was a majority opinion. On the other hand, our question was very broad–about political advertising in general–and it is notable that 42 people took the opportunity to denounce their fellow citizens.

Similarly, in evaluating Face the Facts USA, John Gastil and Dave Brinker asked representative Americans to watch videos of online conversations, and asked “After watching [the video], do you feel that you would be more able to participate in a political conversation?” Most responses were favorable, but some expressed critical views of the people featured in the videos:

  • “NO, it made me quite upset and I lost a little faith in humanity listening to all the right wingers”
  • “I don’t think this will help any political discussions because as was evident in observing some of the chat, liberals and democrats are incapable of remaining calm and decent 100% of the time and right wingers are incapable 90% of the time. Check that fact!! :) People are dug into their positions and there is a war coming, it’s just a matter of when, not if.”

In conjunction with survey data about declining social trust, these responses indicate a challenging situation.

However, as part of the same Face the Facts initiative, AmericaSPEAKS also convened citizens to deliberate in Google Hangouts. Compared to a control group–and compared to people who simply received one-way informative materials–citizens who were randomly chosen to deliberate were more likely to express faith in their fellow citizens as deliberators. Their attitude was measured by their agreement with these statements:

  • “The first step in solving our common problems is to discuss them together.”
  • “Even people who strongly disagree can make sound decisions if they sit down and talk.”
  • “Everyday people from different parties can have civil, respectful conversations about politics.”

So it would appear that actually engaging other people in discussion makes people more favorable to deliberation. Most citizens do not have such experiences. Expanding the scale and prevalence of discussion would have benefits for nonpartisan political reform.

This post is cross-posted on the Democracy Fund blog. Stay tuned for more analysis in the upcoming weeks. The previous entries in the series can be accessed at:

  1. Educating Voters in a Time of Political Polarization
  2. Supporting a Beleaguered News Industry
  3. How to Reach a Large Scale with High Quality Messages
  4. Tell it Straight? The Advantages and Dangers of Parody

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