The Politics of Trust (in the USA) - PO616

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Module delivery information

This module is not currently running in 2020 to 2021.


Americans do not trust their government or the politicians that represent them. While for most Americans, their distrust is fuzzily conceptualised and focused, for a few it can become a boiling rage, leading to murderous acts against government representatives (witness Timothy McVeigh's deadly attack on a federal government building in Oklahoma City in 1995). Distrust peaked in November 2016 when Americans rejected the political establishment and elected the outsider Donald Trump as president.

PO616 seeks to uncover why Americans are angry with and distrustful of their government. Among other things, we will look at the decline of social capital, the rise of post-materialism, government underperformance, crooked politicians and the changing role of the media in the American political system to determine which, if any, can help us understand Americans’ increasingly negative perceptions of government.

The data suggest that declining trust is not unique to the United States, but is down in most western democracies and many of the former Eastern Bloc countries. Moreover, trust has fallen not only in governments and politicians, but in most institutions and authority figures. Americans and many outside the US no longer trust the police, the courts, the media, big business, trade unions, even universities; nor do they trust the people (or 'experts’) who staff these institutions. Research also suggests that people are increasingly distrustful of their fellow citizens. In PO616 we will examine these trends, because they are interesting in and of themselves, but also because they may help shed light on Americans’ relationship with their government.


This module appears in the following module collections.

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%

Indicative reading

Dionne, EJ Jr. Why Americans Hate Politics ( New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991)
Esler, G The United States of Anger: The People and the American Dream ( London: Penguin Books , 1997 )
Norris P (ed.) Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance ( Oxford: Oxford University Press , 1999 )
Nye, JS Jr., Zelikow PK & King DC (eds.) Why People Don’t Trust Government ( Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997 )
Dalton Russell, Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices (Oxford University Press, 2004)

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course, students will:
- Have a good knowledge of the American political system and many of the problems it faces;
- Understand the role and significance of trust in political systems;
- Understand the various competing explanations as to why Americans specifically and citizens generally distrust government;
- Be able to think critically about the competing explanations for distrust of government;
- Critique the literature to identify potential 'holes' in the current research;
- 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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