In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Trust in Latin American Governing Institutions

  • Introduction

Political Science Trust in Latin American Governing Institutions
Ryan E. Carlin, Juan S. Gómez Cruces
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0347


The end of dictatorships, civil wars, and exclusive party systems by the close of the 20th century was a genuine cause for optimism about democracy in Latin America. Once the euphoria surrounding transitions subsided, the cold realities of transitioning to open market economies thrust the region into a crisis of representation. That is, Latin America’s parties, elected officials, and voters struggled mightily to achieve the democratic ideals of representation, accountability, effective citizenship rights, and rule of law (inter alia, Frances Hagopian’s “After Regime Change: Authoritarian Legacies, Political Representation and the Democratic Future of South America”; Jorge Domínguez’s “Latin America’s Crisis of Representation”; Kenneth M. Roberts’s “Party-Society Linkages and Democratic Representation in Latin America”; Scott Mainwaring’s “The Crisis of Representation in the Andes”). In many Latin American countries, a general malaise set in that bubbled over (again) with protests in 2019. COVID-19’s global pandemic placed a temporary lid on this simmering situation but likely exacerbated the region’s crisis of representation. Viewed as a barometer for democratic viability, political trust has become a lynchpin among institutional, behavioral, and cultural theories of democratization. Though “political trust” could refer to myriad institutions, we conceptually circumscribe it to governments, legislatures, political parties, local government, the judiciary, the police, the military, and the civil service / bureaucracy. We acknowledge that a research tradition built on David Easton’s conception of political system support (A Systems Analysis of Political Life, 1965; “A Re-assessment of the Concept of Political Support,” 1975) views presidential approval and satisfaction with democracy as conceptually kindred to political trust. We nevertheless distinguish these concepts because satisfaction with democracy remains in conceptual and empirical limbo after decades of debate. Moreover, early-21st-century work from the Executive Approval Project and others diverges theoretically from political trust by considering characteristics (e.g., gender, ideology) and actions (e.g., scandals, executive decrees) of a single person, the president, as opposed to institutions more broadly. We also acknowledge the tradition of Gabriel A. Almond and Sidney Verba’s The Civic Culture (1963), which analyzes interpersonal trust alongside political trust. Research on interpersonal trust in the region has, unfortunately, lagged behind research on political trust and, if anything, has hewn more closely to the multidisciplinary work on prosociality than the culturalist tradition. In sum, interpersonal trust, presidential approval, and support for and satisfaction with democracy arise in the works cited in this article. But we view them as conceptually distinct from political trust and judge the scholarly advances related to the latter as worthy of separate treatment. Scholars have invested vast resources into measuring political trust, theorizing its drivers, and modeling its implications. This article explores advances on those three fronts. Along the way it highlights major breakthroughs and unresolved questions.

Mapping Political Trust across Space and Time

Our knowledge of political trust in Latin America has been constructed piecemeal. Before scholars could explain it, they needed to measure political trust in the region, typically using survey research methods. How trust levels varied between countries and, later, over time provided grist for the theoretical mill. In some ways the rush to measure outstripped advances in conceptualization of political trust, and the bulk of the conceptual work (and critiques) followed years of measurement.

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