"That lack of trust in government is not a recent phenomenon, notes CNN polling director Keating Holland. "Except for a brief spike fueled by patriotism immediately after 9/11, a majority have not trusted the government since the early 1970s." This distrust, heightened by the financial crisis, no doubt accounts for much of the anti-incumbent sentiment sweepng the country.
Holland adds, "Ten years ago, roughly four in ten said they trusted the government always or most of the time; that number dropped to the mid-to-low 30's in the middle part of the decade, but then dropped to the 20's in 2008, where it has stayed ever since. The all-time low in CNN polls was in the summer of 1994 just before Newt Gingrich led the GOP to take control on Capitol Hill when only 17 percent said they trusted the government most or all of the time."
The CNN telephone poll, conducted September 1-2, surveyed 1,024 adult Americans, with a sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. It indicates a partisan divide: Democrats expressed more trust in the government, but even among Democrats, only four in 10 expressed that they trusted government all or most of the time.
PRC's survey was an expansion of its 1998 Deconstructing Distrust report, in which many of the same issues were explored and while a majority distrusted the government, criticism had declined from earlier in the '90s, while the public's desire for government services and activism held steady. This is not the case today.
PRC's report continued, "As was the case in the 1997 study of attitudes about government, more people say the bigger problem with government is that it runs its programs inefficiently (50%) than that it has the wrong priorities (38%). But the percentage saying government has the wrong priorities has increased sharply since 1997 from 29% to 38%."
Fifty-two percent of PRC's sample say the size of federal government is a major problem it's too big and too powerful while 58 percent believe it interferes too much in state and local matters. Finally, PRC found a rise in the percentage that feel fedgov has a negative effect on their day-to-day lives.
Pew found opinions about elected officials "particularly poor." Just before passage of the healthcare reform bill, PRC recorded its lowest favorable rating for Congress in 25 years of PRC surveys 25 percent just half the rating of the previous year.
Since Congress has a slight advantage over the other two branches of government in that it controls funding, voters would be well served to pay special attention to congressional candidates, as well as to the voting record of their own representative in Washington. The real reform will come in Congress.
And while the distrust reflected in the two polls reviewed here is accompanied by anger and frustration, readers should remember that some lack of confidence is healthy. As Benjamin Franklin observed, "Distrust and caution are the parents of security."