Americans Increasingly Frustrated With Government, Survey Finds

  • May 11, 2016
  • by James Toedtman

The deeper you peer into the Pew Research Center’s pre-election report, Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government, the more you realize that the voters in 2016 may be more interesting than the candidates.

Start with the first conclusion: Americans have a negative regard for the federal government—only 19 percent trust government to do the right thing all or most of the time, and elected officials are held in such low esteem that 55 percent of those polled for the report say ordinary Americans would do a better job of solving national problems.

At the same time, Americans have a long list of concerns they want addressed by the federal government—and in many cases, they like the way the federal government is dealing with them. Thirteen of the 17 federal agencies rated in the survey, for example, are judged positively. The public’s top three priorities in the survey—keeping the country safe from terrorism, responding to national disasters, and ensuring safe food and medicine—also receive three of the four highest “good job” ratings.

Is there a disconnect?

The report has an answer—and a few more questions. Based on a national survey, with 6,000 interviews between August and October 2015, the analysis builds on previous Pew Research Center reports on the government’s role and performance in 2010 and 1998. It also complements earlier polls conducted by the research center as well as American National Election Studies, Gallup, ABC News/Washington Post, and CBS News/New York Times, enabling the Pew study to track trust in government over the past five decades.

It is not a pretty picture.

The erosion of public trust in government began in the 1960s after peaking at an all-time high—77 percent—in 1964. “Within a decade—a period that included the Vietnam War, civil unrest, and the Watergate scandal—trust had fallen by more than half to 36 percent,” the new report notes.

After sliding to 20 percent in 1992, public trust reversed and climbed as high as 60 percent in the weeks after 9/11 in 2001.

But that moment passed quickly. Since then, a profound decline in public confidence, fueled by two costly wars, a deep recession, and angry partisanship, has proceeded steadily and deeply.

“The basic attitudes didn’t change much from 2010,” says Carroll Doherty, the Pew Research Center’s director of political research. “What’s different is the long period of distrust. You don’t realize what a deep hole we’re in. It’s striking in this case.”

Stan Collender has witnessed the slide from a front-row seat. Since the 1970s and his first job as a Capitol Hill legislative aide, Collender has become one of Washington’s top experts on the federal budget.

“What you have today is the reality that Washington is broken,” he says. “Shutdowns, debt limit stalemate, the House speaker quits, Congress disregards the budget, and [the Senate] won’t consider a Supreme Court nominee. Nobody is calling it a shutdown, but that’s what we have.”

What we also have is a more sharply defined electorate, starting with polarization.

The survey reinforced earlier Pew findings about the divide between the political right and left. Although nearly one-third of those interviewed described themselves as independents, their views coincided with partisan views so consistently that the difference between “independents” and either of the two major parties has become hard to measure. “In virtually all situations, these Republican and Democratic ‘leaners’ have far more in common with their partisan counterparts than they do with each other if combined in a single ‘independent’ group,” the report says.

The partisan divide is even larger among Americans who regard themselves as politically engaged— those who are registered to vote, vote regularly, and follow political developments. Only 6 percent of engaged Republicans trust the government all or most of the time, while 22 percent say they never do. Among Democrats, the comparable percentages were 27 percent who trust the government and 7 percent who never do.

Distrust is accompanied by frustration and anger. A majority of Americans (57 percent) say they’re frustrated with government, and another 22 percent say they’re angry—a vote of no confidence that has lasted a decade now. That attitude is found especially among those over 50, who are more than twice as likely to be angry as those between 18 and 29 years old (29 percent versus 12 percent), and among whites (25 percent compared with 17 percent of Hispanics and 12 percent of blacks).

Then there’s Congress. The country’s legislative body received a 69 percent negative rating, and for the first time in over two decades of polling, Congress was more poorly rated by the party in control of Congress than by the minority party. Only 23 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Congress, while 31 percent of Democrats have a favorable view. The Supreme Court didn’t escape the public’s disdain either, with 42 percent rating it unfavorably, the highest level in 30 years.

The public’s confidence in its own political wisdom has also collapsed since the 1960s. There’s been a steady decline of people in the U.S. with a good or great deal of confidence in the political wisdom of the American people, dropping from 77 percent in 1964, to 64 percent in 1997, to 57 percent in 2007, to 35 percent today.

And there’s a larger picture. The distrust of the federal government coincides with the declining public confidence in institutions that historically were the foundation supporting America’s middle class—churches, unions, the entertainment industry, the media, and large corporations. These institutions provided jobs, protected workers, entertained and informed the nation, and were the places many people worshipped.

Despite this gloomy portrait, there were generally positive ratings for federal agencies, from the U.S. Postal Service to the Food and Drug Administration, including the FBI, the Social Security Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The exceptions were the Department of Justice, the Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Pew’s Doherty notes a significant finding in the survey, what he calls “common ground.” Despite all the frustration, anger, and distrust, the survey revealed widespread support for the importance of the federal government in solving problems. Republicans and Democrats generally agreed on a federal role in protecting the nation from terrorism, responding to natural disasters, protecting food and medicine, and even managing immigration.

But that common ground collapses on safety net issues. “That’s where you see the big differences” between Democrats and Republicans—especially engaged Republicans, Doherty says. “This is where the real fault lines are.” Only 21 percent of engaged Republicans favor a government role in ensuring access to health care, compared with 83 percent of Democrats. There are similar gaps when Democrats and Republicans are asked about helping people get out of poverty and protecting the environment. There’s a more than 20-point gap for ensuring quality education, setting workplace safety standards, ensuring basic income for people over 65, and strengthening the economy.

Does this period of prolonged distrust have a consequence? That’s a concern for Dan Fagin, 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for his book examining the chemical pollution of Toms River, New Jersey, and in particular the slow response of health and environmental regulators and the clusters of cancer cases that developed there. “The risk,” he says, “is that this distrust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We lose faith in government, and so we cut budgets of the regulatory agencies and the regulators can’t do their jobs. So then we say, ‘See? We told you so.’”

“I hope that somewhere out there we rediscover our faith in government,” Fagin says. “I don’t see any alternative.”