People Trust The Government When The Economy is Good

I think there’s a huge tendency among journalists to underrate the extent to which macroeconomic conditions drive everything in politics. For example, John Sides reviews the data and concludes that public trust in government is basically just driven by economic statistics:

trusttrend 1

The relationship is striking. The economy explains about 75% of the variance in trust. If you delete 1964, which looks like a potential outlier, the economy still explains 73% of the variance.

Of course the economy is not the only important factor. But it gets far less attention than it deserves when the hand-wringing begins. So, sure, perhaps we can and should tinker with the political process. Clip lobbyists’ wings. Get leaders to make nicey-nicey with the opposite party. But the process is less important than outcomes. More people will trust the government again when times are good, even if government ain’t.

One reason this kind of thing doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, of course, is that it’s against the professional interests of the political operative class to admit that objective macroeconomic factors are what drives most political outcomes. But this one again highlights how insane it was of Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill to ignore Christina Romer when she said the economy needed a $1.2 trillion stimulus and deliver a $700 billion stimulus insane.

We can argue about whether the White House or the Hill was the main locus of the madness, but it was truly mad. More effective macroeconomic stabilization policy would have made Obama more popular and made the public more confident in the ability of the government to govern. That, in turn, almost certainly would have improved the situation facing congressional Democrats. Ironically, it’s the very vulnerable Democrats who were most inclined to trim the stimulus who are now most likely to pay the price for their own short-sightedness.