The Politics of Trust (in the USA) - POLI6160

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Module delivery information

This module is not currently running in 2021 to 2022.


Much recent academic and popular commentary has focused on citizens' supposed mistrust of government, especially in the United States of America. The central aim of the Politics of Trust is to uncover the reasons for Americans’ malaise. However, students will also examine other western democracies where trust has fallen to see if these countries’ experiences can inform our understanding of the US case specifically and the politics of trust more generally. The course begins with a history of trust in America, with an overview of the putative reasons for declining trust in the post-World War II period, with an examination of the experiences of other western democracies. The second part turns to the specific explanations for declining trust as posited by academics and political commentators. Explanations include the crisis of government performance, spin, the internecine warfare between Republicans and Democrats, the changing nature of the modern labour market, declining social capital, and the media.


Contact hours

Total contact hours: 22
Private study hours: 128
Total study hours: 150

Method of assessment

* Review, 1000 words, 15%
* Essay, 2500 words, 35%
* Exam, 2 hours, 50%

Reassessment Instrument: 100% coursework

Indicative reading

* Russell J. Dalton, Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices: The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004 hardback/2007 paperback)

* Gavin Esler, The United States of Anger: The People and the American Dream (London: Penguin Books, 1997)

* Marc Hetherington, Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism (Princeton University Press, 2004)

* John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse (eds.), What is it About Government that Americans Dislike? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

* Pippa Norris (ed.), Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)—Note available as e-book

* Joseph S. Nye Jr., Philip D. Zelikow and David C. King (eds.), Why People Don't Trust Government (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997)

* Susan J. Pharr and Robert D. Putnam (eds.), Disaffected Democracies: What’s Troubling the Trilateral Countries? (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000)

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

On successfully completing the module students will be able to:

1. Have a good knowledge of the American political system and many of the problems it faces;

2. Understand the role and significance of trust in political systems;

3. Understand the various competing explanations as to why Americans specifically and citizens generally distrust government;

4. Think critically about the competing explanations for distrust of government;

5. Critique the literature to identify potential 'holes' in the current research;

6. Use comparative analysis to inform their thinking.


  1. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  2. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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