Trust In Government Hinges On Life Experience, Divisiveness

May 18, 2021

A first generation American whose parents fled a civil war. A Black woman in a gentrifying neighborhood. A white woman concerned about trans rights. They all bring their lived experience to how they trust — or don’t trust — local government.

"No, I don't. I don't trust anyone," said Linda Holcomb. She was at the meat counter in Findlay Market recently, buying groceries with her son. "No matter if there's any politicians or politics or anything involving the mayors and police officers, I don't trust none of them."

Holcomb, 57, lives in Over-the-Rhine, where there were 45 shootings in the neighborhood last year. In 2020, the city had 89 fatal shootings, the deadliest on record.

"I mean, you scared to walk down the street half the time. Because you don't know somebody's gonna drive past and be shooting and you get caught by a bullet," she said.

It's the kind of issue Nina Davis might not readily see. She lives across the Ohio River in Bellevue, Kentucky. She's a liberal and says the local government is starting to inch its way left. 

"So I'd say I'm like 75% there in trust… It's a touch-and-go subject. I mean, I feel like we could do more on LGBTQ+ rights, and the $15 minimum wage issue," she said.

But in general, she thinks the government is gradually moving in a direction she supports.

The differences in Holcomb's and Davis' experience and distrust in government makes sense, says Tia Sherèe Gaynor, assistant political science professor at the University of Cincinnati.

"So the country was really founded on this notion that free white men had more access to life, liberty and the pursuit of justice than anyone else that was here," she said.

That didn't include women, people of color or poor white men. It also didn't include immigrants.

Roshan Chandrakumar was also shopping at Findlay Market. He's a 21-year-old Ohio State grad and volunteers at the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.

"I don't have a lot of belief in any level of government," he said. "I think there could be a lot more that's done for the well being of people."

To him, that means making sure people have access to affordable housing and other social services. He says his parents fled Sri Lanka during the decades-long civil war there. That directly influences how he thinks about government.

"But that sort of perspective of coming from like, being the son of immigrants who came from a civil war, I think has shaped my worldview a lot and made me a lot more understanding of suffering and that well being should be extended to everyone," he said.

Gaynor said people who've faced struggles based on their identity have different views of the government.

"And so it's not surprising to me that someone who is white doesn't necessarily experience systemic disadvantage because it's (the government) designed to be interpreted in that way,” she said. “Whereas if you're a person of color, or if you're an individual that has a marginalized, or underrepresented identity, then you experience the world very differently."

It's not just personal experience that paints the way people see the government, though. There's more to it than that, and the past few years of political divisiveness have brought other factors to light.

"The dichotomy of our political parties is so evident in a way that I've never seen in my life before,” Gaynor said. "It doesn't seem like there are any moderates. It just seems like it's just all on one side, all on the other side, and we can't get anything done that way."

That plays a big role in people's trust in government. Jonathan Ladd, associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown, says partisan political conflicts have gradually made people trust the government less, citing an American National Election Study.

"In 1958, they asked people, do you agree that quite a few government officials are crooked in the United States? And less than 25% of people said yes," he said. "But the last time we asked this in 2014, about 65% of people said they believe quite a few government officials are crooked."

Ladd says divisiveness creates a two-fold problem. The first is when political parties constantly try to paint the other as untrustworthy, voters see neither party as trustworthy.

He says if the political parties could find more common ground and tone down their rhetoric, maybe public trust can start to be restored. But strategically, that might not work.

"But it's also true that some loss of trust in government may be worth it to achieve some other policy goal, but I think political polarization and intense fighting between the parties does reduce trust in government, and we have to decide when and where it's worth it."

WVXU did non-scientific social media polls over the past few weeks. Of the 156 people who responded, about two-thirds them say they do not trust their local government is working honestly on behalf of the public.

 The "Trust In Local Government: WVXU's Public Integrity Project" examines Cincinnati politics and the individuals who shaped it. Read more hereSupport for this project comes from The Murray and Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation.