March 10, 1998

How Americans View Government

Deconstructing Distrust

Introduction and Summary

Americans continue to distrust the government, although there are signs that hostility toward government has begun to diminish. There is also considerable evidence that distrust of government is strongly connected to how people feel about the overall state of the nation.

Today, personal satisfaction is soaring, the economy is thriving and confidence in state and local governments is growing, but neither satisfaction with the condition of the country nor confidence in the federal government has been transformed. The national mood and trust are both up from the mid-1990s, but still just 20% of Americans are highly satisfied with the state of the nation and only 34% basically trust the government.

Worry about the moral health of American society is suppressing satisfaction with the state of the nation, just as discontent with the honesty of elected officials is a leading cause of distrust of government. In the broadest sense, these ethical concerns are now weighing down American attitudes as Vietnam, Watergate, double digit inflation and unemployment once did.

Disillusionment with political leaders is essentially as important a factor in distrust of government as is criticism of the way government performs its duties. Cynicism about leaders is especially critical to distrust among the generations of Americans who came of age during and after the Vietnam and Watergate eras, while performance failures are more important to older Americans.

Distrust of government and discontent with the country notwithstanding, there is no indication that these attitudes are near a crisis stage. Public desire for government services and activism has remained nearly steady over the past 30 years. And distrust of government is not fostering a disregard for the nation’s laws, eroding patriotism or discouraging government service. About as many people would recommend a government job to a child today as would have in the early 1960s, when there was much less distrust of government.

Refining these views, most Americans describe themselves as frustrated with government, not angry at it. And that frustration is taking a toll on the quality and nature of the dialogue between the American public and its leaders in Washington.

With the failings of political leaders bearing so large a burden in Americans’ distrust of government, the recent allegations against President Clinton — of adultery, perjury and suborning perjury — appear to strike at the heart of trust in government. But trust declined only modestly in a follow-up survey conducted in the midst of the scandal. The basic views of Americans accustomed to scandal in Washington generally, and to allegations about Clinton specifically, are not easily moved. Further, poll after poll show that Americans are much more concerned with elected officials’ public conduct than with their private lives.

Principal Findings

These are the results of a series of surveys and focus groups conducted by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press that were designed to examine the underlying causes of distrust of government. The study also sought to determine whether distrust has reached a dangerous level and to learn what steps could be taken to improve the public’s understanding of government.

Conducted over the last six months, these surveys show Americans to be less critical of government in a variety of ways than they were just a few years ago. Despite broad-based distrust of government, the polling finds improved public evaluations of federal workers and specific departments and agencies of government. Just one of the 19 federal agencies and departments tested was not rated favorably by a majority of respondents. Seven received significantly better ratings than they did in the mid-1980s.

A softening of general attitudes toward the federal government is also apparent today. Fewer people than in 1994 criticize Washington for being inefficient and wasteful, too controlling and unresponsive. Further, the percentage thinking that government regulation of business does more harm than good fell over this same period, as did the percentage who think that elected officials lose touch with people.

The direction of the trend notwithstanding, distrust of government remains substantial. No matter how the question is posed, it is a decided minority that has a positive opinion of government. Fewer than 40% trust the government in Washington always or most of the time; approximately the same percentage has a favorable opinion of the federal government.

However, 56% of Americans temper their distrust of government by saying they are frustrated with it. Just 12% say they are angry with government. In fact, more than twice as many people — 29% — say they are basically content as say they are angry.

The Center surveys suggest that the public’s frustration is directed more at politicians who lead government than at civil servants who administer it. By a margin of 67%-to-16%, the public has more trust in federal workers than in their elected officials to do the right thing. In that vein, 69% now say that they have a favorable opinion of government workers — an improvement from the 55% that held that view in a 1981 Los Angeles Times national opinion survey.

Americans are also drawing sharper distinctions between federal, state and local governments than they once did. Today, more people trust their state and local governments than trust the government in Washington. But, it was not always that way. Twenty-five years ago people were more confident in the federal government than in those closer to home. Since then confidence in Washington has eroded, while faith in state and local government has actually grown.[1.  Similarly, all branches of the federal government have not suffered a long term loss of confidence. A Spring 1997 Gallup poll found more Americans trusting the Supreme Court than in 1972, even though public confidence in both the presidency and the Congress has fallen substantially during that interval.]

But even at that, the Pew Research Center surveys find little indication that distrust of government is having dangerous consequences for the country. The exception is among the small segment of the public that describes itself as angry at the government, where as many as 38% could see justifications for violent acts against the federal government.

The broader problem is the American public’s connection to its political leadership. While trust in government does not directly correlate with that bond, feelings about political leaders — the bosses of government — clearly do. Boredom with Washington, not voting and seeing Washington issues as irrelevant are much more common attitudes and behaviors among Americans who are highly critical of political leaders than among those with more positive views of politicians.

The study is summarized in the next eight pages and discussed in detail in subsequent sections. Nearly 4,000 adults were contacted, including 1,007 adults called February 19-22 for a follow-up survey; 1,165 for a values update survey, November 13-17, 1997; and 1,762 in the initial trust in government survey, September 25-October 31, 1997. This overview features an examination of broad factors underpinning trust, highlights specific views of government and finally presents our conclusions. A complete description of the methodology can be found on page 67. The questionnaires and results can be found on page 73.

Conducted in the fall of 1997, the initial trust in government survey included nearly 50 questions designed to illuminate the sources of trust and distrust. It found 39% of the public basically trusted the federal government. The late February follow-up survey sought a snap shot of trust in the wake of allegations of a sex scandal and cover-up in the White House. Trust in government declined modestly to 34%. Throughout this report, the analyses of factors influencing trust in government reflect findings in the earlier survey.

The National Mood and Trust in Government

Pew’s new polling sheds light on the paradox of public distrust of government on the one hand and liking and wanting specific forms of government activity on the other. A close correspondence is seen between how Americans view the state of the nation and how much trust they have in government. People who generally distrust government also have a poor opinion of the condition of the country. Conversely, people who trust the government tend to feel good about the country in general.

Over the past 30 years, these two attitudes have tracked very closely, even though the findings come from different surveys administered by varied polling and opinion research organizations. The state of the nation rating was developed by the noted Princeton social psychologist Hadley Cantril in 1959 to measure public contentment with the course of the nation.1 Since then this measure has been employed by a variety of survey organizations, notably The Gallup Organization and the Center for The People & The Press more recently. Since the mid-1960s, there has been a striking correspondence between answers to this question and responses to the famous American National Election Studies (NES) question which asks respondents how much they trust the government in Washington to do what is right.

Confidence in government and ratings of the nation both plummeted in the 1960s during the Vietnam years and fell even further in the 1970s in response to Watergate. Both measures remained low throughout the 1970s, presumably in response to the high inflation and unemployment of that era. There was somewhat of a rebound in trust and rating of the nation during Reagan’s “Morning in America” years, though it ended abruptly with public disillusionment over the Iran-Contra scandal. Trust and satisfaction with the state of the nation have fluctuated somewhat since then, but have never fully recovered.

Pew’s research provides insight into why trust in government and views of the nation have paralleled each other, both failing to recover with the successful end of the Cold War and the vigor of the American economy. Two inter-related factors emerge: First, long-standing public discontent with morality and politics generally and morality in politics specifically; second, generational differences in views of both government and the state of the nation.

Morals, Ethics and Honesty

Discontent with political leaders and lack of faith in the political system are principal factors that stand behind public distrust of government. Much of that criticism involves the honesty and ethics of government leaders. Concern about moral decline is also a major component of discontent with the nation at a time when its economic and international standing is ascendant.

The importance of political disillusionment to distrust of government is reflected in a number of ways. When asked to say in their own words why they do not like government, 40% of those with an unfavorable opinion of the government offer complaints about political leaders or the political system as the reason for their negative view.

This is considerably more than the 24% who offer critiques of the way government does its job; the 14% who cite complaints about government policies; or the 13% who say that government is uncaring. Much of the criticism of leaders and the political system involves personal and professional ethics — mentions of dishonesty, self-aggrandizement, scandal and special interests are prevalent.

Looking at a comprehensive analysis based on the results of many questions, we also find that criticism of political leaders is a principal driver of distrust in government. The Pew surveys found that criticism of political leaders is as important an element in the distrust equation as the view that government does a poor job in running its programs. Cynicism about political leaders and the political system is more crucial to distrust than concerns about the proper role of government, worries about its power and intrusiveness, misgivings about its priorities or resentment about taxes.

Concern about honesty and ethics in politics is an important link between distrust in government and pessimism about the state of the nation. In exploring the discontinuity between the optimism Americans feel about their own lives and the pessimism they feel about the nation, Pew’s research found in November 1996 that the morality crisis was fueling pessimism about the country:

Three of the four national problems that over 60% of survey respondents say are increasing in severity relate to moral and social decline: crime (61%), drugs (64%) and low moral and ethical standards (62%)… Perceptions of a nation overwhelmed by moral and social problems are strongly linked to pessimism about the country’s future. By a margin of 74% to 54%, pessimists are more likely than optimists to believe that crime is becoming a worse problem nationally.2

The link between America’s moral discontent and its dissatisfaction with the state of the country and distrust in government is shown in the graph below, which charts the two survey measures over the past three decades side-by-side with the murder rate.

Cynicism or Performance: Generational Differences

If the changed moral climate has taken a toll on how Americans view their country and government, its impact has been greatest on Americans who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s when criticism of government leaders and policies crescendoed. The long-term impact of this period in American history upon the young people of that time is clearly evident today. The nearly 40-year history of public opinion about the state of the nation and trust in government makes it possible to observe how particular generations have changed or maintained their views over this time period.

In 1964, there was no generation gap in Americans’ views of the state of the nation. This is not true today. While the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s dimmed perceptions of the state of the nation for people of all ages, Americans who had reached middle age by then have regained some of their positive feelings. Today, they feel more upbeat about the state of the nation than do younger Americans and their distrust of government is not as great as that of Baby Boomers.

These generational patterns continue to influence views of government. Today, younger generations are much more distrustful of politicians than older people. Pew’s analysis suggests that the underlying causes of distrust differ by generation. Older people judge government more on the basis of its performance, while younger people measure government by the quality of its leadership.

Specific Views of Government

Americans give the government dismal performance ratings. An overwhelming majority of the public says that the government does a fair or poor job managing its programs and providing services (74%). Almost as many agree that when a program is run by government it is usually inefficient and wasteful (64%). These low marks do not come up significantly when people are asked about federal handling of specific tasks. For instance, 52% of Americans say the government is doing only a fair job providing for the elderly; 20% describe the effort as poor.

Americans express mixed views on why the federal government’s performance is so lackluster. When asked what the government’s biggest problem is — its priorities or inefficiency — 61% choose inefficiency. But when people look more closely at specific issues government takes on, many acknowledge the complexity of the issues. Among those who give the government low marks on health care, for example, 48% blame the complexity of the issue, compared to 45% who blame the government.

Whatever the reason, the government’s perceived performance failures significantly undermine trust. Fully 70% of those who give the government a fair or poor rating say they basically distrust government. The inverse is also true: 76% of those who are satisfied with government performance basically trust the government.

One reason performance factors so prominently in trust is that Americans have high expectations for the role government should play in public life. Fully 72% of Americans believe the government should see to it that no one is without food, clothing or shelter in this country — as many as felt that way in the 1960s. Many Americans also say it is the federal government’s responsibility to manage the economy (68%), conserve natural resources (52%) and provide for the elderly (46%).

At the same time, Americans do not believe the federal government gives these domestic issues the attention they deserve. On eight different issues — which range from ensuring safe food and medicine to setting academic standards for students and providing for the elderly — the public believes the federal government should give the issues higher priority than they think it now does. The priority gap is highest on ensuring access to affordable health care: 75% of the public say it should be a high priority; just 15% say it is. The gap is lowest on ensuring everyone can afford college: 50% want it to be a high priority: 11% say it is.

Despite this enthusiasm for an activist government, Americans are uneasy with federal power and control. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of the public believes the government controls too much of our daily lives and more than half say Washington interferes too much in state and local matters. While these numbers are substantial, the intensity has lessened since 1994. Today, 29% completely agree with the statement government controls too much of our daily lives, down from 37%.

The public divides into three equal sized groups when asked if the government has too much power (33%), too little (33%) or about the right amount (32%). Remarkably, this division has not changed markedly in 30 years.

Conclusions

A principal finding of this research is that distrust of the federal government is not only about the workings of government per se. A significant part of this distrust reflects how people feel about the nation more generally.

Discontent with the state of the nation is both a cause and an effect of distrust of government. Both sentiments are expressions of a broader disillusionment with the country as a whole, which is not apparent in people’s lives, nor is it as evident at the state and local levels of government.

The consequences of distrust of the federal government are equally complex. The growth of this opinion since the 1960s has not been accompanied by a commensurate loss of appetite for government programs or solutions. Opinions about using the government to solve important problems have changed remarkably little over the past 30 years.

It is difficult to pinpoint the specific negative behavioral or attitudinal consequences of distrust. It has not diminished Americans’ sense of patriotism, nor has it created a climate of opinion that is conducive to acceptance of illegal anti-government activities. Even public interest in government employment has varied little since the early 1960s, despite the decline in trust.

Instead, distrust of the national government and low opinions of the state of the nation seem to weaken people’s connections to civic life. Interest in public affairs, news from Washington and voting are victims of low public esteem for politicians, which is an integral component of distrust.

The data collected in these surveys suggest that views about government performance, power and priorities are more important than “trust,” in judging public opinion of the federal government. These opinions, at the very least, bear directly on government and are not part of a larger set of attitudes about the nation.

There are signs, however, that public criticism of government in almost all ways has diminished somewhat in recent years. Fewer Americans than in the mid-1990s fault government performance, worry about abuse of government power and feel government is unresponsive. However, on balance the vast majority of the public continues to be troubled by these things.

Over the past decade, the public’s bottom line on the government has fluctuated. In 1987, a 57%-to-39% majority of Americans agreed that the government is really run for the benefit of all the people. By 1994, the balance of opinion had completely reversed to 42%-to-57% It has since rebounded, but only part of the way and now stands at 48%-to-50%.

Americans are now as distrustful of their national government as are the European publics, but remarkably remain less distrustful than Europeans of their political leaders. Over the past decade Europeans have caught up with American concerns about the power of government, but are somewhat less critical of government performance than those on this side of the Atlantic.

In many ways, the Pew surveys underscore the importance of government performance to improved public attitudes about government. While acknowledging the difficulty of many of the problems with which government deals, perceptions about poor performance are still seen as a primary reason for government failures. Despite some concern about misguided government objectives, most people say it is performance that determines their opinions.

For the most part, Americans remain open-minded about government. Most think it can do better. Increased positive public evaluations of the Post Office and the military during a period in which trust in government is at a very low ebb give testimony to the public’s “show me” willingness to change its mind. Indeed, most Americans agree that the federal government is basically sound and needs only some reform. What’s more, nearly all Americans express confidence that the government can work better.

Many people contributed to this work, most of all, Paul Light of The Pew Charitable Trusts, who not only shared his expertise on government and trust but also enthusiastically urged us forward in taking the broadest possible look at the underpinnings of trust. Michael Robinson read drafts of surveys and findings, always challenging our assumptions and providing context for our conclusions. Francis Fukuyama and Seymour Martin Lipset helped focus our thinking as we approached the project as did Sam Popkin, Cal Mckenzie, Marjorie Connelly, Lee Sigleman, Larry Hugick, Cliff Zukin, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Patricia McGinnis.

The research team was lead by Mary McIntosh, of Princeton Survey Research Associates, and Kimberly Parker, our Research Director. They played important roles in every stage of the project — conceptualizing the surveys, analyzing the data and crafting the report. Greg Flemming and Molly Sonner, both Pew Research Center analysts, along with Claudia Deane, now with The Washington Post, and Christopher Adasiewicz of PSRA, all contributed significantly with thoughtful analyses and provocative questions. Charmaine Thompson created all of the charts and graphs that enrich this report, and Jocelyn Causey prepared the tables. Beth Donovan edited the report.

  1. Respondents are asked to consider their hopes and fears for the nation and then rate the state of the nation on a 0-10 scale to represent where the country stands today, where it stood five years ago, and where it is expected to be five years hence.
  2. Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, “The Optimism Gap Grows,” January 17, 1997