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Cook and Gronke: The skeptical American

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Cook and Gronke. 2005. The skeptical American: Revisiting the meanings of trust in government and confidence in institutio. JOP 67:784-803.

Main Point

Scholars have noted declining trust in NES and GSS results, and have concluded that Americans are increasingly distrustful and cynical about their government. But the NES and GSS only ask whether you trust the government's various institutions, not whether you distrust them. Thus, they cannot differentiate between skepticism and distrust. By using an improved survey, the authors show that Americans are more skeptical than distrustful--which might be altogether good for democracy.

In addition, the authors' trust/distrust scale is driven by different factors than the NES and GSS measures are. While all are driven by short-term forces to some extent, the NES and GSS are driven more so by them. On the other hand, the authors' trust/distrust scale is also influenced by more enduring personality traits (e.g. religiosity, interpersonal trust, interest in politics; see Table 1), suggesting that their scale picks up more enduring traits.


  • Figure 1 shows the distribution of responses on the authors' 10-point scale. Note that most people are skeptical, not distrustful, and the trust is much more common than distrust.
  • Figure 2 takes the three categories of trust from the NES scale and shows the 10-point scale for each of these categories. It shows that the NES's "almost never trust the government to do the right thing" category picks up both skeptics and distrustors.