Is Trust in Government Really at an All Time Low?

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on April 26, 2010

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Some survey findings have more legs than others and the recent report “Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor” from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press seems to be getting more attention than most.  Conservative commentators such as the Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henniger are using the finding that just 22% trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” to suggest that Obama’s policies are completely at odds with the mood of American voters and predicting the Democrats will lose big in the November election. Democrats can take heart in the fact that this number was 17% in a CBS poll taken in October 2008 just before the Republicans were swept out of power.  Henniger falsely asserts that the poll results are an “historical low” point for the measure.  Nonetheless the fairly low reading is further evidence that the mood of America is more anti-incumbent than anti-Democratic. Indeed, the chart and accompanying data table Pew compiled from the iPOLL database maintained at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut are very illuminating.  From readings as high as 73% in 1958 and 77% in 1964 we see the long steady decline in the chart through the Vietnam War years to 53% in 1972.  There is a sharp fall off after the Watergate scandal to 36% in 1974, and a continued decline through the Ford and Carter years to 25% in 1980.  That’s about where the number is now. The number moves upward through the first Reagan term to 47% in 1984, but then falls again to 40% in 1988 and hits a lows of 22% (again the current number) as George Bush the elder is running for reelection during an economic downturn.  The number stood at 17% in 1994 after the defeat of the Clinton health reform effort, and just before Democrats lost control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, so Democrats cannot afford to ignore the fact that the number is again near its lowest measures. But the number did rise dramatically during the Clinton years hitting 44% before the 2000 election.  The measure spiked to 60% just after September 11, 2001 but then declined through the Bush years to 17% just before Obama was elected. So what do these results really tell us? The survey question is really capturing three things at once.  1) The number rises and falls with the economy which is a key driver of overall satisfaction with government.  2) The number falls in response to a major scandal such as Watergate or Iran Contra. And 3) we are not the same as the American public in the 1950s.  Belief in institutions, all institutions, from the Catholic Church to large corporations to the military, the political parties and the federal government is something to be read about in historical novels and seen only in the first season of Mad Men.  After hearing the justification for the Iraq invasion, what grown up in 2010 would say they trust the government “just about always” as 3% do in the current survey?   These days the modal choice of conservatives and liberals is “some of the time” the answer chosen by a majority of Democrats and Republicans in the survey — but counted as “distrust” when the results are summarized. So how worried should Democrats be based on the results reported in the Pew study?  The answer is more than a little but less than the survey’s conservative trumpeters.  The truth is the survey tells us the conservative movement has been successful in its decades long campaign to reduce the trust in government built by FDR’s successful response to the great depression and World War II.  This effort most emblematically captured in Ronald Reagan’s “The government IS the problem” mantra, has had a long term effect and combined with a poor economy, it means the Democrats are challenged by an anti-incumbent headwind heading into this election. But in our most recent post we explain why the predictions of doom are misplaced and what we think Democrats should do to turn the tide in our favor.

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