Vol. 16 No.5 (May, 2006), pp.328-330


POLITICAL DEMOCRACY, TRUST, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE:  A COMPARATIVE OVERVIEW, by Charles F. Andrain and James T. Smith.  Boston:  Northeastern University Press, 2005.  231pp.  Cloth.  $65.00.  ISBN:  1-55553-645-X.  Paper. $26.00.  ISBN:  1-55553-646-8.


Reviewed by Helen J. Knowles, Department of Political Science, Boston University.  Email:  h.j.knowles [at] gmail.com.


You can lead a horse to water, so the idiom goes, but you cannot make it drink.  The same applies to people and political participation – you can place a person in a democratic society and provide him or her with the tools to participate, but what that person does with those tools is that individual’s decision alone.  This decision is, as political scientists Charles F. Andrain and James T. Smith remind us, contingent upon a multitude of factors, not the least of which is the degree of trust that the governed place in the actions of the governors. 


In POLITICAL DEMOCRACY, TRUST, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE, Andrain and Smith have written a book whose interdisciplinary and comparative approach makes a valuable (and timely) contribution to the political science literature.  Using data from fifteen democracies, they provide a scholarly overview (recognizing the existence of that word in the subtitle is crucial to evaluating this book’s value) of variables that help to explain why not all democratic governments enjoy equal confidence and trust from their citizens.  Scholars of comparative politics and international relations will find the book of great value.  It also provides avenues for future research that will interest the law and politics community.


Drawing on data from the 1995-1997 World Values Survey (WVS) – a social science dataset created by interviewing sample publics in over eighty countries worldwide, and described by its creators as “a comprehensive measurement of all major areas of human concern, from religion to politics to economic and social life” – Andrain and Smith focus their study on fifteen “societies” (World Values Survey).  They examine eight “established democracies” (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, West Germany, the United States, Japan, and Spain) and seven “democratizing societies” (East Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile).  The analysis of these data employs a political exchange approach to politics.  This approach is premised upon the belief that confidence in a political institution will diminish as that institution fails, in the eyes of the governed, to “uphold moral-spiritual values and satisfy material interests” (p.2).  This generates the conclusion: “If a wide gap occurs between expected (valued) benefits and actual perceived benefits, then institutional confidence will decline” (p.150).


After an introductory chapter in which the book’s hypotheses are outlined, chapters two through five examine these hypotheses in the context of economics, political participation, law and justice, and democratic attitudes.  In chapter [*329] two, Andrain and Smith explore the relationship between the economic policies produced by the democratic governments in the studied states, and the impact (positive or negative) of these policies on the citizens’ perceptions of the policymakers.  Their analysis is prefaced, and then contextualized by a discussion of neoliberalism, an emphasis reflecting the influence of this school of thought on economic policies of the 1970s through 1990s that, not coincidentally, Andrain and Smith argue, was a period of increased distrust in government. 


Similarly organized, insofar as the substantive analysis is prefaced by a literature and theory review, chapter three examines the interaction between political participation and support for democratic systems.  This chapter demonstrates how the WVS dataset can make an important contribution to navigating the complex issues surrounding political participation.  For example, the data confirm that both the society in which one lives and individual-level variables affect a person’s ability and willingness to engage in political activities.  They confirm that, to draw on just one segment of the political science literature, the political participatory response of citizens to elite discourse is indeed affected by the four axioms of public opinion identified by John R. Zaller, and that the national differences in these responses are ultimately offset by individualized differences.(Zaller 1992)


Chapter four will be of greatest interest to the law and politics subfield, because it deals with “Cultural Concepts of Justice.”  It is this chapter, however, that also exposes the main analytical and methodological problem with which Andrain and Smith grapple but never really come to terms with.  “Because of measurement problems and complex, diverse dimensions of general cultural values not only within each nation but in every individual,” the WVS “National Rankings of Cultural Values” – the heart and soul of the dataset – “reveals few distinctive national value patterns”(p.105).  While not finding something is, of course, a finding in and of itself, this observation is, nevertheless, telling because it exposes the crucial limitation of this dataset, not just for these authors, but for those who wish to pursue the lines of inquiry that this book opens.  The authorial dilemma presented by the data is that the individualistic nature of the values that determine degrees of trust in democracy makes generalizations very difficult.


This does not go unnoticed by Andrain and Smith.  In fact, in chapter six (I discuss chapter five below) we find its exposure treated in quite some depth.  This discussion is couched in the language of dilemmas faced by democratic systems.  The authors identify seven of these dilemmas (each of which could easily be the basis for its own book) – five theoretical, one ethical, and one policy-based.  The theoretical dilemmas are inextricably intertwined, dealing with the (often tense) relationships between individuals (the rulers and the ruled) and social structures; elite and mass political participation; social conflict and democracy; limited and activist government; and politics of [*330] morality/ideology and pragmatism.  These are intertwined because of the ethical and policy dilemmas that pit equality against individual liberty.


Over a quarter century ago, John Hart Ely (1980) explained that democracy is unavoidably paired with distrust, hence the need for a legal system that ensures procedural fairness by, inter alia, treating the governed and the governors alike.  Although we can argue about what this fairness is, and what kind of system achieves it, Ely’s contention makes a more profound observation which members of the law and politics community must surely keep in mind when reading Andrain and Smith’s volume. It may be true that we can justifiably frown upon the political machinations that contribute to this distrust.  Ultimately, however, there is much to the argument that this distrust is a necessary part of maintaining the legitimacy of a democratic system.  However, if that system is composed of a ‘government of laws, not of men,’ then there is also much to the argument that the citizens’ distrust of their leaders is a necessary part of maintaining the system’s legitimacy.


That this is at the heart of Andrain’s and Smith’s analysis (although, the authors do not explicitly say so) is a conclusion that the reader can draw from chapter five – which, unlike the sixth chapter, represents the real substantive end to the book.  Here, the authors’ discussion of the role in a democracy of “adversarial views toward an outgroup perceived as dangerous” (p.123) is clearly timely.  On the one hand, write Andrain and Smith, “People threatened by these groups give lower support to democratic values.”  On the other hand, “If citizens perceive that public officials have taken steps to provide security against the threatening group, then their confidence in government institutions may rise” (p.123).  This suggests that, at the end of the day the most important value to keep in mind when either evaluating or participating in a democracy is ‘tolerance.’


William Gladstone, a long-time British Prime Minister, famously remarked:  “Liberalism is trust of the people, tempered by prudence; conservatism, distrust of the people, tempered by fear” (Henry 1986, at 254).  The political exchange framework shows us that there is a trust-based reciprocal relationship between the governed and the governors.  Andrain’s and Smith’s analysis of WVS data shows us that this relationship can, and does, work well in a number of very different counties, when the trust is infused with a healthy dose of distrust.



World Values Survey [http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org], last accessed April 27, 2006.


Ely, John Hart. 1980. DEMOCRACY AND DISTRUST:  A THEORY OF JUDICIAL REVIEW. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Henry, Lewis C. (ed). 1986. BEST QUOTATIONS FOR ALL OCCASIONS. New York: Ballantine.


Zaller, John R. 1992. THE NATURE AND ORIGINS OF MASS OPINION. New York: Cambridge University Press.


© Copyright 2006 by the author, Helen J. Knowles.