In Why Washington Won’t Work, Marc J. Hetherington and Thomas J. Rudolph argue that a contemporary crisis of trust—people whose party is out of power have almost no trust in a government run by the other side—has deadlocked Congress. On most issues, party leaders can convince their own party to support their positions. In order to pass legislation, however, they must also create consensus by persuading some portion of the opposing party to trust in their vision for the future. Without trust, consensus fails to develop and compromise does not occur. Up until recently, such trust could still usually be found among the opposition, but not anymore. Political trust, the authors show, is far from a stable characteristic. It’s actually highly variable and contingent on a variety of factors, including whether one’s party is in control, which part of the government one is dealing with, and which policies or events are most salient at the moment.
Political trust increases, for example, when the public is concerned with foreign policy—as in times of war—and it decreases in periods of weak economic performance. Hetherington and Rudolph do offer some suggestions about steps politicians and the public might take to increase political trust. Ultimately, however, they conclude that it is unlikely levels of political trust will significantly increase unless foreign concerns come to dominate and the economy is consistently strong.
Specifically, Hetherington shows that, as political trust declined, so too did support for redistributive programs, such as welfare and food stamps, and race-targeted programs. While the presence of race in a policy area tends to make political trust important for whites, trust affects policy preferences in other, non-race-related policy areas as well. In the mid-1990s the public was easily swayed against comprehensive health care reform because those who felt they could afford coverage worried that a large new federal bureaucracy would make things worse for them. In demonstrating a strong link between public opinion and policy outcomes, this engagingly written book represents a substantial contribution to the study of public opinion and voting behavior, policy, and American politics generally.