From reading popular media as well as casual empiricism (that means talking to your friends), one might think that people have a very low opinion of politicians in Ireland and that the current economic crisis has caused this. Is there any truth in the rumour? The European Social Survey is a rich data source which allows us to answer this question rigorously as it has a wealth of information on people’s trust in politicians and institutions like the legal system and parliament amongst others.
In each question respondents were given a scale from 0 (no trust at all) to 10 (complete trust). The graph below shows the mean of this variable for Ireland for the five waves of the ESS currently available. On a scale of 0 to 10 an average of less than 4 doesn’t seem particularly high so there is indeed some truth in the rumour of our skepticism towards our elected representatives. But what is the trend? Well, the graph shows that we got slightly more trusting between 2002 and 2006, perhaps because the economy was booming and we thought that we were delivering the goods. But then it goes downhill with the economy. However the point to note is that while these changes over time are statistically significant, they are very small in magnitude. So trust has declined but certainly not collapsed.
It is possible that the decline in the economy has just made people world-weary and cynical in general so that the graph is not just showing a change in attitude to our politicians. One way of getting a handle on this is to look at changes in trust in other institutions. Rather than look at other Irish institutions, as a comparator I have used the United Nations since there is no obvious reason why the Irish economy should have directly affected people’s trust in it. The graph at the end shows that corresponding means – which are noticeably higher. It shows a similar but less pronounced pattern of increase and decrease, reflecting plausibly the early feel-good factor followed by generalized world-weariness.
So whether your like or dislike politicians there is good news here: we don’t trust them much but no less than usual really.
One can use the same data to look at individual predictors of trust. A quick look at the data shows that women trust politicians less, feminine intuition perhaps. Foreign born people trust our politicians more (as do the very religious, bless ‘em). Perhaps this just reflects what immigrants were used to it before they came or maybe they just haven’t sussed out the scene yet. Somewhat to my surprise, education has no effect. However people who are struggling to pay their bills are much more cynical about politicians.