With a historically low approval rating for Congress and a persistently low level of trust in government, it’s becoming evermore important to understand the attitudes of the American electorate—and to do something about it.
The recent release of the CNN-ORC International Poll showed that a historic low of 13 percent trusted the government—on the eve of the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation. In addition to overall trust, the survey showed that nearly half of respondents were divided between viewing Watergate as a “very serious matter” (51 percent) and that “it was just politics” (46 percent). However, it did reveal a generational trend—a majority of those over 34 said it was a serious matter while those under 35 said it was just politics. After the Watergate scandal, the public’s trust in government has continued to decline, yet there was a remarkable sense of optimism after Nixon’s resignation.In August 1974, after a week in which the presidency transferred hands, the Roper Center’s poll asked respondents if they regarded it as a “black week or a bright week in our history.” 46 percent of respondents said it was “bright” while only 27 percent said it was “black” and most of the remaining claimed it was mixed. There’s a disconnect between Americans’ trust in government today and that of 40 years ago.
Trust in government, like job approval ratings, is one of the most widely used measurements for reading the pulse of the electorate. Yet there is one variable that continues to be overlooked for polling: political efficacy. Unlike trust in government which refers to the faith we have in government, political efficacy represents two concepts—internal efficacy, the self-confidence a person has to effect change within the political process, and external efficacy, the belief that the government is sufficiently responsive.
Political efficacy is one of the most underrated measurements in social science. Put simply: if trust is the measurement of faith toward government then efficacy is the measurement of action toward government. Trust at a certain level remains an important pillar for a healthy democracy, yet efficacy should be equally significant. A strong sense of political efficacy underlies voters going to the polls, citizens donating to campaigns, or college students responding to calls for action. Political efficacy is the lifeblood of the many historic movements in the United States, from women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement to President Kennedy’s call to service and the historic turnout in the 2008 Election. Participation in our democracy is predicated on a certain level of efficacy, not trust.
Social scientists have been measuring political efficacy since the 1950’s on one of the best surveys in the country, the American National Election Studies (ANES)—widely regarded as the gold standard for voter behavior. By the 1980’s, however, scientists realized the measurement was no longer precisely explaining political efficacy. In 1987, the ANES initiated a pilot study, testing a number of questions to find the right questions to ask eligible voters. In 1991, three political scientists published an article in the top political science journal explaining a series of questions that best measures political efficacy. Those questions were included on several ANES surveys throughout the 1990’s but dropped after 2000. Unfortunately, the current 1950’s measurement preserves approximation and continuity instead ensuring validity and reliability.
The politics of resignation is a force that threatens our democracy, and political efficacy deserves a closer examination by the media, pollsters and the scholars. In an era of gridlock and distrust, a comprehensive understanding of political efficacy is needed more than ever.
To that end, the American Political Science Association should form a committee on the politics of resignation to reexamine the importance of political efficacy in the current political climate, and how we can better understand its interactions with other measurements, like trust in government. Task forces aren’t new for the Association, however, in this case, examining the politics of resignation challenges the Association to demonstrate its influence for practical solutions to American public. By calling for a reexamination of political efficacy—its measurement, interactions and short- and long-term effects—the Association will strengthen social science research and better our democracy.
Lucas is a Network Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, the founder of Raise Voices Not Dollars Super PAC (raisevoicesnotdollars.org), and a legislative staffer on Capitol Hill. The views expressed herein are his own.