Americans have rising distrust in government

How often do you trust the government in Washington to do what is right? That question has been put to thousands of Americans over the decades by multiple survey research firms.
It’s easy to look at Washington and conclude that nothing ever gets done. Trust in government has steadily deteriorated over the past several decades and continues to do so. Questioning the aims and efforts of government is a foundation of American citizenship. It’s how the nation was born. The colonists didn’t trust King George III, and they carefully laid out their reasons for breaking away from his rule in the Declaration of Independence.
But some of the recent decline may have less to do with how the government has disappointed people and more to do with an increasing knowledge of how the government works.
Confidence in the government to do the right thing is central to elections and accountability. Many people, for example, agree on what government should accomplish, like peace, security and economic growth. But they disagree on the steps to get there, like cutting taxes, enacting the draft or increasing airport security. Mainly, people disagree over the means, while still agreeing that the goal is desirable. These disagreements are at the heart of much of partisan politics.
But waning faith in Washington is one thing that members of both parties and all generations agree on. And recently, the gap between the number of Republicans and Democrats who trust the government in Washington to do what is right has grown — and president by president, it appears the gap appears to be getting bigger.
In 1958, when the American National Election Study (A.N.E.S.) first asked Americans if they trusted the government in Washington to do what was right, 73 percent of adults said they put their faith in the federal government “most” or “some” of the time (I sit on the board for the A.N.E.S. project). In 2014, the last time anyone asked this question, the Pew Research Center estimated that roughly 24 percent of the adult population in the United States trusted the federal government to do what was right most or some of the time.
The drop in trust over the decades has not been completely steady; the farthest fall came in the period starting with the Vietnam War, and continuing with the Watergate Hotel break-in, Richard Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Mr. Nixon, the energy crisis and stagflation.
Americans’ trust in government has not recovered from the disillusionment brought on by Vietnam and Watergate, even with post-Watergate open-records legislation to increase transparency. This is true for members of both parties and all ages. Somewhat surprisingly, young people in the 1960s (under 30) held faith in Washington a bit longer than older adults (over 60), but by 1980 that difference evaporated, and the trust of every age group had deteriorated.
One of the drivers of trust in government is relatively straightforward: reaction to world events, like economic recessions and recoveries, declarations of war, moments of terrorism and political scandals.
In the economic hard times of the early 1980s, multiple polls conducted by news media organizations like CBS, The New York Times and The Washington Post showed that only 29 percent of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing. But when the economy bounced back at the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, confidence in Washington responded, too, to nearly 50 percent. The terrorist attacks in September of 2001 pushed trust in Washington up to a modern peak — 60 percent, according to the Gallup Organization — but the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, bank bailouts and the battle over raising the debt ceiling in 2011 pulled it back down to where it remains.
Alongside the responses to world events, the data show that trust in Washington also reliably depends on party identification. On average, Democrats have higher confidence in the government when their candidate is in office, and the same is true for Republicans when their party is in power. Independents usually reflect the views of the out party. The data have nicely shown these shifts as party control of the White House has changed over the last several decades.
Using data from Pew Research Center, A.N.E.S., Gallup, ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times and CNN polls over the decades, moments of large differences between partisans during several administrations emerge: gaps of 15 points or more during the presidencies of Mr. Nixon, Mr. Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The data also show that the average partisan gap over an administration is getting bigger, suggesting that something other than disagreeing about the steps to achieve common goals may be driving declining faith in Washington.
Democrats and Republicans, for example, show an average seven-point gap during Mr. Ford’s and Mr. Carter’s presidencies. Mr. Reagan’s two terms open the gap to 19 points. During the presidencies of the second Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama, the gap has grown to 24 and 20 points — the largest partisan gaps in trust since pollsters began measuring it.
There’s also a good deal of evidence to suggest that these patterns are not unique to America or to government as an institution. Trust in all kinds of institutions, from banks to courts, has declined since the 1950s. Justin Wolfers, an economist and Upshot contributor, described it as a function of what we know now that we didn’t know before: There is increasing transparency across all types of institutions today relative to the 1940s and 1950s, he said in an interview in 2011.
That very transparency might be the root of declining trust, he concludes.
If information and knowledge have led people to trust most institutions less than they did in the past, that could also partly explain the growing partisan divide in trust in government. As people trust those institutions less, they probably trust parties less, too, which may make the “other” party seem less trustworthy than it was before.
It is of some concern that trust in government is objectively low. But playing a role in the background is a steady march away from government opaqueness — a longstanding American tradition dating to the candid submission of grievances outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

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