March 3, 2011

Fewer Are Angry at Government, But Discontent Remains High

Section 1: Attitudes About Government

When asked how they feel about the federal government, a majority of the public has consistently expressed frustration. Currently, 59% say they are frustrated with the federal government while 22% are content and 14% are angry. The percent saying they are angry with government has declined nine points since last September.

Fewer Republicans say they feel angry with the federal government than did so last fall. In the current survey, 16% of Republicans say they are angry with the government, down from 33% in September. There also has been a decline in anger among independents from 27% last fall to 15% now. Among independents who lean to the GOP, the percent saying they are angry declined from 38% to 20%. Views among Democrats have been fairly stable with 10% now saying they are angry with the federal government. Thus, the gap between Republicans and Democrats is much smaller than it was last year.

Nearly half (47%) of Tea Party supporters said they were angry with the federal government in September of last year. That has dropped to 28% in the current survey. Even among Republicans who support the Tea Party, there has been a decline in the percent saying they are angry with the government. As was the case last year, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party are more likely to express anger with the federal government than those who disagree or have no opinion of the Tea Party (30% vs. 9%).

There also has been a decline in anger with the government among whites and people 50 and older. In September 2010, a quarter (25%) of whites said they were angry with the government; that has declined to 14% in the current survey. There now is little difference between whites, blacks and Hispanics in the percent expressing anger with the federal government.

Anger is down seven points among those under 50, 14 points among those ages 50 to 64 and 12 points among those 65 and older.

Trust in Government

Last year, a Pew Research survey on public attitudes toward government found that the proportion saying they can trust the government in Washington to do the right thing had fallen to one of its lowest levels in more than 50 years. (See “Distrust, Discontent and Partisan Rancor,” April 18, 2010).

Since then, public trust in government has risen, but it remains very low. Just 29% say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always (4%) or most of the time (25%). Last year, 22% said they could trust the government just about always (3%) or most of the time (19%).

While most Republicans (76%) continue to say they trust the government only some of the time or never, the percent saying they trust the government always or most of the time increased from 13% last year to 24% now. Among moderate and liberal Republicans, 36% currently say they trust the government just about always or most of the time, up from 17% in March 2010. Trust is much lower among conservative Republicans; 17% say they trust the government at least most of the time, which is largely unchanged from a year ago (11%).

Tea Party supporters remain overwhelmingly distrustful of the government in Washington. Only 14% trust the government at least most of the time while 85% say they trust the government only some of the time or never.

There has been virtually no change among Democrats; 34% trust the federal government always or most of the time while 65% trust the government some of the time or never. Democrats continue to be more trusting of government than Republicans, but the partisan gap has been cut from 21 points in March and 26 points in September 2010 to 10 points in the current survey.

There is little difference in trust in government among Democrats; 40% of liberal Democrats say they trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time, compared with 30% of conservative and moderate Democrats.

Independents are somewhat more trusting of government than they were a year ago; 27% say they trust the government at least most of the time, up from 20% last March. The overwhelming majority (71%) continues to say they trust the government only some of the time or never (79% said this a year ago).

Long-Term Trends in Trust in Government

Historically, trust in government is related to broader measures of satisfaction with the state of the nation and economic stress. The low points in government trust over the past half century have mostly occurred during the nation’s economic struggles and periods of intense dissatisfaction with the way things were going in the country.

Similarly, trust in government recovered during periods of high satisfaction and strong economic growth. Both trust in government and satisfaction with the state of the nation remain quite low today.

Periods of high distrust in government also have corresponded with high turnover in Congress. In general, when public trust in government declines steeply – as it did in 1974, 1980 and in the early 1990s – incumbents are more likely to lose and a larger number of seats usually changes parties. In 2010, when trust reached one of its lowest levels in half a century, rivaling only the early 1990s, 69 seats changed parties, with Republicans gaining 66 seats previously held by Democrats while Democrats took possession of only 3 seats previously held by Republicans. Similarly, 58 incumbents lost in the primary or general elections that year.

Congress Favorability

The public continues to have a negative view of Congress. About a third of the public (34%) says they have a favorable opinion of Congress while 57% have an unfavorable view. This is little changed from July 2010 when 33% expressed a favorable view and 56% had an unfavorable opinion of Congress.

Although the overall opinion of Congress has been stable, there have been shifts among Republicans and Democrats since last summer. Republicans now have a more favorable view of Congress. Currently, 38% express a favorable opinion of Congress, up 16 points since July 2010. At the same time, fewer Democrats view Congress favorably; 37% now say they have a favorable opinion, down from 48% last summer. These shifts among Republicans and Democrats have virtually erased what was a substantial partisan gap in July.

Although views among independents have been stable, they now view Congress less favorably than Republicans and Democrats. Only 30% of independents say they have a favorable opinion of Congress.