Examining the decline in political trust in Australia and the US

Posted 12th January 2021

Despite the vast differences between their political systems, history, economy, and environment, political distrust in politicians and political institutions in the US and Australia reached virtually identical levels on the eve of the COVID 19 outbreak.

But the pandemic, and the response by the respective leaders of each country, has created ‘starting points to roads leading elsewhere’, according to Carnegie Mellon University Australia and Flinders University Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Applied Public Policy Professor Jonathan Mendilow.

Prof. Mendilow examined the decline of political trust in each country, both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic, during his 12 months in Adelaide as part of the Fulbright Program. It is one of the largest and most prestigious educational exchange programs in the world and operates between Australia and the US.

Carnegie Mellon University Australia and Flinders University Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Applied Public Policy Professor Jonathan Mendilow and his wife Shlomit during their time in Adelaide.

His research methods included reviewing polls and articles and conducting interviews with activists, party officers, and legislators across the US and Australia. Prof. Mendilow's findings included:

  • Similar levels of erosion in trust in disparate settings may indicate comparable factors that shape public opinion in a manner that is more salient than the unique aspects that set the two societies apart;
  • The pre- COVID-19 ‘engine’ that worked to erode political trust in both political systems consists of political finance arrangements which many are unfamiliar with. In the US, the distrust was ignited by the Supreme Court's 2010 decision to allow the virtually unlimited flow of corporate and rich donor money to support the candidates of their choice. This made its first financial impact and effect on public opinion in the 2012 campaign. In Australia, the downtrend in trust was noted since the 1990s but was equally related to political finance and the perceived advantages gained by corporations and wealthy donors, especially as major differences among the big parties narrowed and the perception of the difference between them dwindled. While in both systems, most citizens are not conversant with the particulars of political finance, many experienced the feeling that ‘government does not represent us’;
  • As against centripetal tendencies in Australia, the US experienced centrifugal tendencies that nowadays subject the democratic order under severe pressure.

“One may expect the trends to slow and even reverse in time, but the dissimilar tendencies in similar situations point to the strength of the different historical roots and attitudes towards government institutions and norms, as well as the severity of the COVID 19 shock,” Prof. Mendilow said.

He arrived in Adelaide in mid-March, as COVID-19 lockdowns started around the globe.

“My research was initially focused on party finance and political trust, but it became increasingly important that I incorporated the pandemic and its effect into my work,” Prof. Mendilow said.

“Because coronavirus is perceived to be indifferent to partial interests and tears the mask off, as it were. This potentially enables political leaders in both countries to transcend the grounds of their election and assume the role of spokesmen for society as a whole.”

Prof. Mendilow said it was in part the personality of the respective leaders – Donald Trump and Scott Morrison – that lent impetus to the movement towards centripetal trends in Australia and centrifugal shifts in the US.

Most of the political representatives Mendilow interviewed in Australia opinioned the belief that the crystallization of the national cabinet as an all-Australian organ of decision making was not a product of Morrison’s decision.

“He had no choice in the matter and had to follow what the history and political traditions dictated,” Prof. Mendilow said.

“The immediate response of public opinion to expected patterns of government behavior rewarded the government in general and the Prime Minister in particular with strengthening trust and approval of the policy.

"In the US, however, the individualistic tradition and ‘winner take all’ set-up enabled Trump to issue policies without consultation and most often by means of Twitter, facilitating his efforts to reward his supporters, enhance the link between himself and his admirers and become in effect a president of his camp, or “tribe” rather than of the US as a whole, and the fact that the division between the camps is partially geographical rendered this behaviour ever more prominent.”

Prof. Mendilow said that in Australia, the next elections will “probably not turn on the particular policies enacted by Morrison or his policy promises but instead on his success in heading a common reaction to the pandemic and serving as a spokesman for national interests”.

This, Prof. Mendilow emphasized, is a prediction that takes off from the assumption that all things will remain equal. However, in politics things never remain equal.

“Whether these trends will continue to accelerate or (as is more likely) will serve as starting points to roads leading the two countries elsewhere is a question for the future,” he said.

Prof. Mendilow will return to his role as a professor of Political Science and Global Studies at Rider University in New Jersey in the coming weeks.