Researchers from the United States Studies Centre (USSC) at the University of Sydney have released the results of an extensive comparison of trust in both Australia and the United States.

CEO Professor Simon Jackman and political science lecturer Dr Shaun Ratcliff commissioned public opinion surveys in the United States and Australia with YouGov PLC, as part of an ongoing partnership between USSC and YouGov announced in September 2017.

Professor Jackman said the USSC-YouGov poll shows that compared to Australia, the United States has a trust deficit.

“Australians consistently report higher levels of trust than Americans. It didn’t matter what we asked about — the national government, state governments, family and friends, media, political parties — Australians are more trusting of our institutions than Americans are of theirs,” Jackman said.

“Lower levels of trust in the United States largely stem from Republicans’ exceptionally low levels of trust in institutions. Republicans and Democrats trust family and friends equally, but differ markedly when evaluating media, political parties and government. Republicans even report low levels of trust in their own party and its elected officials.

Coalition supporters in Australia are nowhere near as hostile towards these institutions and groups as are Republicans in the United States.

“These findings are both symptom and cause of policy gridlock in the United States. Ronald Reagan’s memorable insistence in his first inaugural address that ‘government is the problem’ remains central to Republican thinking.”

Professor Jackman said that Donald Trump’s support has its wellsprings in this long-standing component of American political thought, but that Trump also taps a populist anger towards those seen as economically insulated, cosmopolitan elites.

"Our survey found Americans (and Republicans in particular) to be especially less trusting of bureaucrats and government agencies, university researchers and the media than Australians," he said.

“Coalition supporters in Australia are nowhere near as hostile towards these institutions and groups as are Republicans in the United States. Generally speaking, Australian conservatism — like most conservative political movements in the democratic world — is less radical than American conservatism.”

Key findings

Trust in the federal government

  • Citizens in both Australia and the United States report having significant trust issues with their federal governments. Only 21 per cent of Australians think that the Australian Government can be trusted “to do what is right” more often than not; just 8 per cent of Americans are as trusting of their national government. Sixteen per cent of Australians and 22 per cent of Americans say the federal government can never be trusted.
  • This difference was partially driven by Democrats heavy distrust of Republican-controlled Washington.
  • Republicans are less trusting of the Republican-controlled national government of the United States than Australian Greens supporters are of the Coalition-controlled government in Canberra. This reflects the depth of Republican antipathy towards the institutions of national government, a tenant of Republican thinking since at least Barry Goldwater and crystalised in Ronald Reagan’s famous admonition that “government is the problem” (from Regan’s first inaugural address in January 1981).

Interpersonal trust

  • Australians are slightly more trusting of other people than Americans. Thirty-eight per cent of Australians say other people can be trusted all or most of the time, compared to 31 per cent of Americans.
  • There are only small partisan differences with respect to interpersonal trust. Greens voters report the lowest levels of interpersonal trust in the Australian data with 33 per cent reporting that other people can be trusted more often than not.

Institutional trust

  • Australians report higher levels of trust than Americans with respect to every one of the ten groups and institutions we asked about. Averaged over the ten groups and institutions, 56 per cent of Australians report having a little or a lot of trust. The corresponding figure is 43 per cent in the United States, a difference of 13 points between the two countries.
  • While partisan differences in trust are small in Australia, there was a vast gap in the United States. Democrats had overall more trust in institutions and groups than Republicans, with less than half of the latter not even expressing much trust in their own politicians. As a result, Republican politicians are the second least trusted group in our survey.
  • In addition to not trusting their own politicians much, Republicans were substantially less likely to trust university researchers, newspapers, public broadcasters, commercial television news and Democratic Party politicians.

The technical part

The United States Studies Centre and YouGov surveyed 1,032 respondents in Australia and 1,127 in the United States in mid-December 2017. These respondents were recruited from YouGov’s online panel.

Responses were weighted by YouGov to ensure samples representative of the Australian and American populations. The Australian sample was weighted by age, gender, education, region (crossed with city, non-city) and past vote. The US sample was weighted by age, gender, race, education, region, voter registration, and vote choice in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections.

The maximum margin of error is approximately ± 3 percentage points for results reported for the full sample of both the Australian and American surveys. It is larger for sub-groups of the full samples and for differences between the countries.

Trust in the federal government

Question: How often, if at all, can you trust the federal government in Canberra / Washington to do what is right?

  • Trust of the federal government was slightly higher in Australia than the United States. Six per cent of Australians trusted the federal government to do what is right all of the time, 15 per cent most of the time and 20 per cent half of the time. Just 16 per cent of voters in Australia believed the federal government in Canberra would never do what is right.
  • In the United States, just 2 per cent of voters believed the federal government would do what is right all of the time, 6 per cent most of the time, and 16 per cent half of the time. Twenty-two per cent believed the federal government in Washington would never do the right thing.
  • The difference was partially driven by Democrats heavy distrust of Republican-controlled Washington, but also reflects Republican’s own scepticism of the federal government, even when in the hands of their own party.
  • Both Labor and Greens voters in Australia, and Democrats in America, are sceptical of the incumbent conservative governments. Only 20 per cent of Labor voters and 18 per cent of Greens voters report that the federal government would do the right thing all or most of the time. In the United States just 4 per cent of Democrats report the same. In all, 22 per cent of Labor and 21 per cent of Greens voters said the federal government in Canberra could never be trusted to do what is right respectively. Twenty-seven per cent of Democrats said the same of Washington.
  • While 28 per cent of Coalition voters said the federal government could be trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time — reflecting the status of their party as the incumbent — only 9 per cent of Republicans agreed. That is, Republicans in the United States were less trusting of the federal government controlled by their own party than Labor and Greens voters are of a Coalition-controlled federal government in Australia.
  • Just 8 per cent of Coalition voters believed the Australian federal government can never be trusted, while 21 per cent of Republicans say the same thing about the US government.

Per cent of Australian respondents…

Response Coalition (%) Other (%) Labor (%) Greens (%) Total (%)
Always 5 6 6 8 6
Most of the time 23 5 12 10 15
About half of the time 23 25 21 13 20
Some of the time 37 45 35 35 37
Never 8 12 22 21 16
Don’t know 4 7 3 13 6

Per cent of US respondents…

Response Democrats (%) Other (%) Republicans (%) Total (%)
Always 1 4 2 2
Most of the time 3 7 7 6
About half of the time 14 15 20 16
Some of the time 48 34 46 41
Never 27 20 21 22
Don’t know 6 20 3 12

Interpersonal trust

Question: Generally speaking, how often can you trust other people?

  • Five per cent of Australians say other people can always be trusted, which is the same number that say they can never be trusted. Thirty-three per cent say other people can be trusted most of the time, 25 per cent about half the time, and 29 per cent some of the time.
  • Two per cent of Americans say other people can always be trusted, compared with 6 per cent who believe others can never be trusted.
  • While in America there is almost no partisan difference on level of interpersonal trust, in Australia Coalition voters were slightly more likely to say people can always or mostly be trusted (43 per cent) than Labor and Greens voters (39 and 33 per cent respectively).

Per cent of Australian respondents…

Response Coalition (%) Other (%) Labor (%) Greens (%) Total (%)
Always 6 4 5 6 5
Most of the time 37 31 34 27 33
About half of the time 20 25 27 30 25
Some of the time 33 29 27 27 29
Never 3 9 4 6 5
Don’t know 1 2 3 5 3

Per cent of US respondents…

Response Democrats (%) Other (%) Republicans (%) Total (%)
Always 1 2 3 2
Most of the time 38 20 36 29
About half of the time 22 24 22 23
Some of the time 31 33 32 32
Never 5 7 6 6
Don’t know 2 16 1 8

Institutional trust

Question: How much do you trust…

Per cent of Australian respondents who…

Trust a little or lot Coalition (%) Other (%) Labor (%) Greens (%) Total (%)
Your family and friends 94 89 93 81 91
University researchers 74 66 81 82 75
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) 60 52 73 82 64
Newspapers 65 49 59 46 58
Federal government agencies and officials 63 40 46 55 52
Commercial TV news 61 43 51 32 51
State government agencies and officials 54 38 49 52 49
Politicians from the Labor Party 28 29 61 49 41
Politicians from the Liberal or National parties 60 27 28 31 40
Social networking 36 35 40 36 37
Average 59 47 58 55 56
  • Averaged across the ten groups, organisations and institutions we asked about, 56 per cent of Australians report having a little or a lot of trust.
  • Of the groups and institutions we asked about, Australians trusted their friends and family the most, with 37 per cent of respondents saying they trusted them all or most of the time, followed by university researchers at 58 per cent, and trusted politicians, government and the media the least. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation topped traditional media in terms of trust, while social media was trusted slightly less than traditional media.
  • The partisan differences in trust on these items were generally not large in Australia (with the exception of trust in party politicians). Labor voters were slightly more likely to trust the ABC and university researchers, but the difference was only 13 per cent and 8 per cent for these, respectively. Reflecting the status of their preferred party as the federal incumbent, Coalition voters were more likely to support federal government agencies and officials (with a 17 per cent gap), and commercial television news (an 11 per cent gap).

Per cent of US respondents who…

Trust a little or lot Democrat (%) Other (%) Republican (%) Total (%)
Your family and friends 91 77 92 85
University researchers 78 52 37 55
Newspapers 79 46 28 50
National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) 76 43 31 49
Commercial TV news 64 36 21 40
State government agencies and officials 49 31 34 36
Federal government agencies and officials 43 32 26 33
Politicians from the Democratic Party 64 23 10 30
Politicians from the Republican parties 8 21 49 25
Social networking 28 25 19 24
Average 58 39 35 43
  • Across the board, Americans tended to trust these institutions and groups slightly less than our Australian respondents. Averaged across the ten items we asked about, we found 14 per cent of Americans said they trusted these media, organisations or groups a lot, while 29 per cent trusted them a little, 25 per cent did not trust them much, and 21 per cent did not trust them at all.
  • Like Australians, of the groups and institutions we asked about, Americans tended to trust their friends and family the most, with 24 per cent of respondents saying they trusted them all or most of the time, followed by university researchers at 50 per cent, and trusted politicians, government and social media the least.
  • Compared to Australia, American respondents trusted traditional media more (especially newspapers) compared with politicians and social media, and the public broadcasters less.
  • There was also a vast partisan difference in the United States. This was much larger than the Australian equivalent. Democrats had more trust in institutions and groups than Republicans on all but two items: Republican politicians and friends and family (and on the latter they were about equal). However, supporting our findings above, Republicans did not even express much trust in their own politicians, with only 49 per cent saying they trusted them a little or lot; and who as a result were the second least trusted group in the survey.
  • In addition to not trusting their own politicians much, Republicans were substantially less likely to trust university researchers, newspapers, public broadcasters, commercial television news and Democratic Party politicians; and somewhat less likely to trust social media, and state and federal officials.

Comparing institutional trust in Australia and the United States

Proportion of respondents who say they trust a little or a lot (and cross-country difference)

Institution or group Australian trust (%) US trust (%) Difference
Your family and friends 91 85 6
University researchers 75 55 20
Public broadcasters 64 49 16
Newspapers 58 50 8
Federal government agencies and officials 52 33 19
Commercial TV news 51 40 12
State government agencies and officials 49 36 12
Politicians from left party 41 30 10
Politicians from right party 40 25 15
Social networking 37 24 13
Average 56 43 13

Partisanship and trust

Trust levels of major left party voters minus trust levels of right party voters

Institution or group US gap (%) Australian gap (%)
Politicians from left party 54 33
Newspapers 50 -5
Public broadcasters 45 13
Commercial TV news 43 -10
University researchers 41 8
Federal government agencies and officials 17 -17
State government agencies and officials 15 -5
Social networking 9 5
Your family and friends -1 -1
Politicians from right party -41 -32

Background to the USSC-YouGov poll

In September 2017, the United States Studies Centre announced that it had partnered with global survey company YouGov, which now provides the Centre with exclusive, monthly polling data from the United States and Australia; tracking perceptions of political leadership in both countries, and unique, targeted insights on a diverse range of topics.

CEO of the United States Studies Centre Professor Simon Jackman, a leader in public opinion research, has previously worked as one of the principal investigators of the American National Election Studies and partnered with media outlets including the Guardian Australia and the Huffington Post on pre-election polling. He said the results provided by YouGov as part of the new partnership will allow the Centre to analyse and publish unprecedented comparative data.

“The United States Studies Centre has taken a keen interest in the attitudes and opinions of people in our region, with research like our surveys into America’s role in the Indo-Pacific. This exciting new partnership with YouGov gives us the opportunity to broaden that focus to public opinion in the United States and then contrast that with the views of people in our own backyard,” Jackman said. “The Centre has a mandate to deepen Australia’s understanding of America. This ongoing commitment to charting public perceptions in both countries is an ideal way for Australians to gain perspective on the United States.”

YouGov is a market research and opinion polling company headquartered in the United Kingdom, with operations in Europe, North America, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.