The Growing Distrust in American Government … Is It Recoverable?

Many Americans think that the growing distrust in the American government and in each other makes it harder to solve key problems. They have a wealth of ideas about what’s gone wrong and how to fix it. But will they put the ideas into needed action?

Trust is an essential elixir for public life and neighborly relations, and when Americans think about trust these days, they worry. Two-thirds of adults think other Americans have little or no confidence in the federal government.

Majorities believe the public’s confidence in the U.S. government and in each other is shrinking, and most believe a shortage of trust in government and in other citizens makes it harder to solve even the smallest of the nation’s key problems.

As a result, many think it is necessary to clean up the trust environment: 68% say it is very important to repair the public’s level of confidence in the federal government, and 58% say the same about improving confidence in fellow Americans. (Pew Research Center)

Moreover, some see fading trust as a sign of cultural sickness and national decline. Some also tie it to what they perceive to be increased loneliness and excessive individualism.

About half of Americans (49%) link the decline in interpersonal trust to a belief that people are not as reliable as they used to be. Many ascribe shrinking trust to a political culture they believe is broken and spawns suspicion, even cynicism, about the ability of others to distinguish fact from fiction.

In a comment typical of the views expressed by many people of different political leanings, ages, and educational backgrounds, one participant in a new Pew Research Center survey said:

“Many people no longer think the federal government can actually be a force for good or change in their lives. This kind of apathy and disengagement will lead to an even worse and less representative government.”

Another addressed the issue of fading interpersonal trust:

“As a democracy founded on the principle of E Pluribus Unum, the fact that we are divided and can’t trust sound facts means we have lost our confidence in each other.”

This research is part of the Center’s extensive and ongoing focus on issues tied to trust, facts, and democracy and the interplay among them.

Here are some of the Pew Research Center’s main findings.

Levels of personal trust are associated with race and ethnicity, age, education, and household income

To explore these connections, they asked questions about people’s general trust or distrust in others, their sense of the exploitative tendencies or fairness of others, and their assessment of the overall helpfulness or selfishness of others.

Levels of personal trust tend to be linked with people’s broader views on institutions and civic life

The disposition of U.S. adults to trust, or not to trust, each other is connected with their thinking about all manner of issues.

For instance, those who are less trusting in the interpersonal sphere also tend to be less trusting of institutions

When Americans perceive that trust in the federal government has been shrinking, they are right

Long-running surveys show that public confidence in the government fell precipitously in the 1960s and ’70s, recovered somewhat in the ’80s and early 2000s, and is near historic lows today.

By and large, Americans think the current low level of trust in government is justified.

Democrats and Republicans think differently about trust, but both groups wish it would rise

Although supporters of the country’s two main political parties hold similar levels of personal trust, Democrats and those who lean Democratic are more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to express worry about the state of trust in America.

There is a generation gap in levels of trust

Young adults are much more pessimistic than older adults about some trust issues.

For example, young adults are about half as hopeful as their elders when they are asked how confident they are in the American people to respect the rights of those who are not like them.

Majorities believe the federal government and news media withhold important and useful information

People’s confidence in key institutions is associated with their views about how those institutions handle important information.

About two-thirds (69%) of Americans say the federal government intentionally withholds important information from the public that it could safely release, and about six-in-ten (61%) say the news media intentionally ignores stories that are important to the public.

On a grand scale of national issues, trust-related issues are not near the top of the list of Americans’ concerns

The Center has asked questions in multiple surveys about how Americans judge the severity of some key issues.

This poll finds that 41% of adults think the public’s level of confidence in the federal government is a “very big problem,” putting it roughly on par with their assessment of the size of the problems caused by racism and illegal immigration — and above terrorism and sexism.

Confidence in leaders and major institutions is mixed

The public is not skeptical about all institutions and leaders. In fact, most people have positive views about most of the groups asked about in this survey.

More than eight-in-ten Americans (83%) say they have at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists to act in the best interests of the public, and the same percentage say this about the military.

Nearly as many express confidence in school principals and police.

In their own words: Americans cite a range of causes and consequences of low trust in government

To better gauge, the public’s thinking on these and other issues raised in the survey, groups of respondents were asked to describe, in their own words, their reasoning and concerns about various topics related to trust.

To minimize the burden on any given participant in the survey, smaller groups of respondents were chosen at random to offer these open-ended responses. And offer they did.

Why is there less confidence in the federal government today than 20 years ago?

The survey’s respondents who said that confidence in the federal government has declined over the past 20 years had a lot to say about why this has happened.

While about three-in-ten declined to answer, those who did provide responses that ranged widely, touching on government performance, the behavior of the president and the parties, the intractability of problems, and polarization among the public and its leaders.

What are the consequences of low levels of trust in the federal government?

How do Americans think about the impact of low public trust in the federal government? The survey took two different approaches to this question. One was to ask a sample of respondents who said that the level of confidence in the federal government is a very big problem to explain why they thought this.

The other was to pose a direct question about the impact of low trust on the country’s ability to solve problems, and then to ask those who said low trust hinders the country to describe which problems they are thinking about.

Mike Schoultz writes about improving the performance of business. Bookmark his blog for stories and articles.