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Democracy and the Culture of Skepticism

Political Trust in Argentina and Mexico

Matthew R. Cleary, Susan Stokes

Publication Year: 2009

Some theorists claim that democracy cannot work without trust. According to this argument, democracy fails unless citizens trust that their governing institutions are serving their best interests. Similarly, some assert that democracy works best when people trust one another and have confidence that politicians will look after citizen interests. Questioning such claims, Democracy and the Culture of Skepticism, by Matthew Cleary and Susan Stokes, suggests that skepticism, not trust, is the hallmark of political culture in well-functioning democracies. Drawing on extensive research in two developing democracies, Argentina and Mexico, Democracy and the Culture of Skepticism shows that in regions of each country with healthy democracies, people do not trust one another more than those living in regions where democracy functions less well, nor do they display more personal trust in governments or politicians. Instead, the defining features of the healthiest democracies are skepticism of government and a belief that politicians act in their constituents' best interest only when it is personally advantageous for them to do so. In contrast to scholars who lament what they see as a breakdown in civic life, Cleary and Stokes find that people residing in healthy democracies do not participate more in civic organizations than others, but in fact, tend to retreat from civic life in favor of private pursuits. The authors conclude that governments are most efficient and responsive when they know that institutions such as the press or an independent judiciary will hold them accountable for their actions. The question of how much citizens should trust politicians and governments has consumed political theorists since America's founding. In Democracy and the Culture of Skepticism, Matthew Cleary and Susan Stokes test the relationship between trust and the quality of governance, showing that it is not trust, but vigilance and skepticism that provide the foundation for well-functioning democracies.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Series: Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust

title page

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The Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust

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Previous Volumes in the Series

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pp. vii-viii

About the Authors

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pp. ix

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pp. xi

THIS BOOK is about the place of trust in democracy. In recent years, democratic theorists have elevated trust—among citizens, and of citizens toward elected governments—to the status of necessary component of a smooth-functioning democracy. When public opinion polls turn up large numbers of citizens who declare that they do not trust their government, such findings become a cause for much ...

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pp. xiii

WE COULD not have carried out this study without the encouragement and financial support of the Russell Sage Foundation’s Program on Trust. We are grateful to Eric Wanner and to Karen Cook, Margaret Levi, and Russell Hardin for their leadership in this important area of social science inquiry. We received stimulating ...


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Chapter 1. The Place of Trust in the Political Culture of Democracy

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pp. 3-18

THE CONCEPT of trust has been rediscovered of late by students and theorists of democracy. They have revived the idea that civic participation generates trust, and that trust among citizens is crucial for democracy to function well. But an equally long, if currently less fashionable, tradition views democracy (or representative government) as functioning best if citizens retain a sense of the fallibility of ...


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Chapter 2. Regional Variation in the Quality of Democracy in Mexico

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pp. 21-54

HERE, WE introduce the concept of subnational democracy and discuss several approaches to cross-state measurement. Borrowing from Linz and Stepan’s (1996) definition of democratic consolidation, we analyze the nature of electoral competition in Mexico, and then turn our attention to regional and local political institutions, ...

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Chapter 3. Regional Variation in the Quality of Democracy in Argentina

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pp. 55-80

TO UNCOVER cross-regional differences in the quality of democracy in Argentina, we draw on provincial and local studies, as well as on our own research. We begin by exploring differences among provinces in patronage and fiscal behavior. We then examine the differences among a subset of regions on a broader set of dimensions: the ...


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Chapter 4. Political Culture and the Quality of Democracy

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pp. 83-128

EARLIER WE found no compelling theoretical link between democracy and personal trust. We identified flaws in the propositions that if citizens trust each other, and if citizens personally trust politicians, democracy works better. If trust and democracy are related, the deepening of democracy should induce a shift from personal to ...

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Chapter 5. Trust and Democratization

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pp. 129-174

IN AN effort to explain why the pace of democratization and of the deepening of democracy has been quick in some regions of Mexico and Argentina and slow in others, we begin by testing the social capital approach. Does a richer civic culture produce the differences we have observed in political culture and in the quality of democracy ...


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Chapter 6. Region, Democratization, and Political Culture

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pp. 177-190

AS DEMOCRACY in a country or a region deepens, the nature of political trust is likely to change. Citizens will turn from the belief that what matters for producing responsive government is that politicians be personally trustworthy, to the belief that what matters is that institutions constrain politicians to be trustworthy. Our findings ...


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pp. 191-210


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pp. 211-226


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pp. 227-234


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pp. 235-244

E-ISBN-13: 9781610440172
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871540652

Page Count: 344
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Russell Sage Foundation Series on Trust