Trust Your Compatriots, but Count Your Change: The Roles of Trust, Mistrust and Distrust in Democracy



Although trust is clearly central to human relations of all kinds, it is less clear whether there is a role for trust in democratic politics. In this article, I argue that trust is central to democratic institutions as well as to democratic political participation, and that arguments which make distrust the central element of democracy fail. First, I argue for the centrality of trust to the democratic process. The voluntary compliance that is central to democracies relies on trust, along two dimensions: citizens must trust their legislators to have the national interest in mind and citizens must trust each other to abide by democratically established laws. Second, I refute arguments that place distrust at the centre of democratic institutions. I argue, instead, that citizens must be vigilant with respect to their legislators and fellow citizens; that is, they must be willing to ensure that the institutions are working fairly and that people continue to abide by shared regulations. This vigilance – which is reflected both in a set of institutions as well as an active citizenry – is motivated by an attitude termed ‘mistrust’. Mistrust is a cautious attitude that propels citizens to maintain a watchful eye on the political and social happenings within their communities. Moreover, mistrust depends on trust: we trust fellow citizens to monitor for abuses of our own rights and privileges just as we monitor for abuses of their rights and privileges. Finally, I argue that distrust is inimical to democracy. We are, consequently, right to worry about widespread reports of trust's decline. Just as distrust is harmful to human relations of all kinds, and just as trust is central to positive human relations of all kinds, so is distrust inimical to democracy and trust central to its flourishing.