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POLITICS: Campaigns

Trust in state and local government high in small states --- and in booming Texas

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Michael Barone,Illinois,Maine,North Dakota,Texas,Utah,Polls,Campaigns,South Dakota

State and local government is, theoretically, closer to the ordinary citizen than the federal government — even though many citizens who vote in presidential elections do not take the trouble to vote in elections in non-presidential years when most or all of the offices at stake are in state and local government. But Americans tend not to think of “state and local government” as a single category, since there area 50 state governments and thousands — tens of thousands, if you count special taxing districts and the like — of local governments. Trust in state and local government thus can be expected to be different in different states and regions.

And indeed it is, according to Illinois-residents-least-trusting-state-government.aspx">recent surveys conducted by Gallup. Percentages expressing a great deal or a fair amount of trust in state and local government vary from 77 percent in North Dakota to 28 percent -- thud -- in Illinois. As Gallup notes, trust tends to be higher in small states than large states and in the central part of the country rather than the coasts. This correlates with more general measures of social trust, which are highest in the Upper Midwest (with its Germano-Scandinavian heritage, as I point out in my recent book Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics) and much lower in very large metropolitan areas. In smaller states and communities, people are more likely to know and trust their political leaders -- as well as each other.

It follows, as Gallup notes, that trust in state and local government is higher in generally Republican than generally Democratic states. Ranking just above Illinois on this scale are Rhode Island, Maine, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, California and Maryland. Four of these states have majorities of their populations in million-plus metro areas, and Louisiana's appearance can be explained by its recent and longtime history of corruption and by the fact that in general trust measures, Louisiana, with its French heritage, ranks at the bottom of the nation. I'm puzzled about the appearance here of Maine; maybe it has something to do with its current politics featuring noisy ruckuses between conservative Republican Governor Paul LePage and the Democratic-majority legislature.

There is, however, one very large exception to the rule that voters have more trust in state and local government in small states: the state of Texas. The survey found 72 percent express that level of trust in Texas, behind only the much smaller states of North Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota and Nebraska. That's well above the 62-percent national average, and Texas is the only one of the 12 largest states in with a percentage of trust in state and local significantly above the national average (it's at 62 or 63 percent in Georgia, New Jersey and Virginia).

One lesson that some may draw from this is that trust in state and local government is greater not only when the state is small but when the state government, in its powers and size, is relatively small. Another lesson is that when your two most recent governors have gone to jail and when pension and spending obligations are threatening governmental units with insolvency, as in Illinois, trust in state and local government is very low.

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