The Journal of Politics


The Democratic Utility of Trust: A Cross-National Analysis

Amaney Jamala1 and Irfan Nooruddina2

a1 Princeton University

a2 The Ohio State University


Studies of political culture have long emphasized the importance of generalized trust for effective democratic governance. Individual-level models continue to treat generalized trust as a crucial predictor of more democratic political cultures, leading some scholars to suggest that building generalized trust is an important means of developing democratic prerequisites, like the appreciation of democratic values, in the nondemocratic world. In this paper we refute this conventional wisdom, arguing that the democratic utility of trust varies cross-nationally depending on existing levels of democracy within a country. Seldom have existing studies looked at the ways in which levels of generalized trust relate to microlevel indicators of support for democracy while controlling for overall institutional contexts. We argue existing government institutions play an important role in promoting levels of generalized trust because, in democracies and nondemocracies alike, political confidence in existing political institutions is linked to higher levels of generalized trust. The democratic utility of trust therefore is not consistent across the globe. The degree of democracy determines the extent to which generalized trust becomes meaningfully linked to support for democracy. We offer evidence from a multilevel model using World Values Survey data to support these claims.

(Received March 17 2008)

(Accepted January 18 2009)


Amaney A. Jamal is Assistant Professor at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544.

Irfan Nooruddin is Associate Professor at The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210-1373.