U-M survey: Local leaders maintain trust in government in a time of democracy’s declining health

December 18, 2020
Contact: Daniel Rivkin rivkind@umich.edu,
Jeff Karoub jkaroub@umich.edu

The old saying, “all politics is local,” is up for debate alongside concerns about the health of democracy. What’s not in dispute is a positive feeling about local politics and government among those in Michigan who serve within its ranks.

Tom Ivako

Tom Ivako

That’s the conclusion of a new compendium study, “The Functioning of Democracy: Insights” from Michigan’s local leaders, by the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.

The study, which examines 12 years of data, concludes that those leaders are generally “positive about institutions, relationships and attitudes associated with local democratic governance.” To be sure, that contrasts in many cases with a greater level of skepticism about government at the state and federal levels, and the study found some areas of concern.

Still, Tom Ivacko, CLOSUP’s executive director, comes away encouraged.

“Even at a time of great distrust in government and declining health of democracy, which seems to have gotten worse in the past four years, it is heartening to know that the core of local governance appears to be doing relatively well,” he said.

The data come from the Michigan Public Policy Survey, a program that has gathered the opinions of elected and appointed officials from all 1,856 of Michigan’s general purpose local governments, and has explored a wide-ranging collection of issues related to the functioning of democracy and political participation in local governments across Michigan.

Topics have included local officials’ assessments of local democratic institutions and processes like elections, citizen participation in governance, ethics in government, relationships between democratic actors and the tone of political discourse, as well as the foundational democratic issue of trust in government.

Regarding trust in government statewide, the compendium shows 72% of Michigan local leaders today trust other local governments “nearly always” or “most of the time.” Meanwhile, 23% trust other local governments some of the time, and just 3% say they seldom or almost never trust other local governments. The 72% with high levels of trust is an increase from the consistent ratings of 65%-66% saying the same from 2009 to 2016.

Debra Horner, CLOSUP’s project manager, says the MPPS offers real insight into the state.

“Because more than 70% of Michigan’s local governments participate in the survey each year—typically over 1,300 individual local leaders each wave—we’re able to shed light on the democratic experience in places large and small, urban and rural, all across the state,” she said.

The conclusions do show a contrast between attitudes about the local level and those concerning state and federal institutions through a new survey question about local officials’ assessments of the essential functioning of democracy at all levels.

In accordance with their views on many individual aspects of democracy, Michigan’s local leaders responded with high ratings for democracy in their own local jurisdictions, but substantially lower marks for the health of democracy in the state of Michigan and the U.S. Of those surveyed, 84% of local leaders rate democracy in their jurisdiction at 7 or higher on a 10-point scale, compared to just 41% for democracy in Michigan overall, and just 21% for democracy across the U.S.


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