How Trust Matters: The Changing Political Relevance of Political Trust


  • Marc J. Hetherington is Professor of Political Science, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37203 ( Jason A. Husser is a Ph.D. Candidate in political science, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37203 (

  • The authors would like to thank Suzanne Globetti, Jon Hurwitz, Dave Peterson, Tom Rudolph, Dave Lewis, Josh Clinton, Cindy Kam, Liz Zechmeister, Larry Evans, Adam Levine, and John Hudak for their helpful suggestions and assistance. Our thanks also to the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions and constructive criticisms.


Americans most often think about government in terms of its ability to grapple with issues of redistribution and race. However, the September 11 terrorist attacks led to a massive increase in media attention to foreign affairs, which caused people to think about the government in terms of defense and foreign policy. We demonstrate that such changes in issue salience alter the policy preferences that political trust shapes. Specifically, we show that trust did not affect attitudes about the race-targeted programs in 2004 as it usually does, but instead affected a range of foreign policy and national defense preferences. By merging survey data gathered from 1980 through 2004 with data from media content analyses, we show that, more generally, trust's effects on defense and racial policy preferences, respectively, increase as the media focus more attention in these areas and decrease when that attention ebbs.