Only 19 percent of Americans — about 1 in 5 — say they trust the government "always or most of the time," according to a study released by the Pew Research Center on Monday. Yet clear majorities also favor the government taking "a major role" in fighting terrorism, responding to natural disasters, keeping food and drugs safe, protecting the environment, strengthening the economy and improving education.
Despite this desire for government services, Americans are clearly dissatisfied with the level of service they feel they receive. Three out of four, 74 percent, say public officials put their own interests ahead of the nation's. And a majority, 55 percent, say ordinary Americans would "do a better job of solving problems" than the people whose job it is to do so.
Trust in government appears to have been higher half a century ago, at a time when the Cold War may have had more of a rallying effect on public opinion — along with the space program and high employment and general prosperity. A similar survey in 1964 found 77 percent of Americans trusted the government either always or most of the time.
Confidence in government has clearly suffered over the ensuing decades, with Vietnam, Watergate, energy crises, various economic troubles, partisan gridlock in Washington and the recent frustrations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that is not to mention the myriad stories of administrative breakdowns, personnel problems and computer hacking.
The trust level generally trended downward after the mid-1960s in the National Election Study, and in polls by Gallup, the New York Times and other news organizations, descending below 30 percent for the first time in the late 1970s. The trust level percentage rose into the 40s at times during the middle part of Ronald Reagan's presidency, declined through most of George H.W. Bush's presidency and fell all the way to 20 percent during the second year of Bill Clinton's time in the White House. Thereafter, however, an improving economy helped the trust level recover again.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the trust level briefly got over 50 percent again. But it fell rapidly thereafter through the George W. Bush years and slipped below 20 percent during the presidency of Barack Obama. In 2011, the moving average of major polls including the Pew Research Poll showed trust at just 17 percent.
People trust their own parties more
In general, trust levels among Democrats have been higher when Democrats are in the White House, while Republicans have expressed more trust when Republicans were president. Four out of 5 Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) told Pew they prefer a smaller government with fewer services, while only 3 out of 10 said so among Democrats and Democratic leaners.
The Pew report is based on more than 6,000 interviews conducted in all 50 states between Aug. 27 and Oct. 4, 2015. That is a highly unusual sample in its size, which is five to 10 times larger than most of the polls often cited in the media. The Pew research also includes interviews done by cellphone, reaching a wider range of people than surveys done by landline phone or via the Internet.
More Republicans than Democrats say they're angry with the government
Republicans are nearly three times as likely as Democrats to say they are angry with the government — 32 percent vs. 12 percent. Among those who say they vote frequently and follow politics on a regular basis, the gap widens — 42 percent to 11 percent. GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson get higher favorable ratings among Republicans who say they are angry at government than they do among other Republicans.
What is more surprising is that the parties are much less divided on the desire for government to play a major role in providing various forms of security, roads and bridges, safety and disaster response. Four in 5 in both parties said the government should have a major role in managing immigration. Here are more findings from the survey:
Spending limits: Big majorities in both parties said they favored some kind of spending limits in U.S. elections. Among those who called themselves conservative Republicans or Republican leaners, 68 percent supported the idea of limiting how much individuals and organizations can spend.
Safety nets: On issues of the social safety net, however, the partisan divide reappears. Some 72 percent of the Democrats and their leaners saw a major role for the government in lifting people out of poverty; only about a third of Republicans did. The same gap appeared on the question of government ensuring access to quality health care.
Government reform: The survey found almost 60 percent of Americans think their government needs "major reform," a sharp increase from the late 1990s, when less than 40 percent of those surveyed said so.
Natural disasters: Government got its best marks in the latest Pew data for its performance on natural disasters, and setting fair and safe standards in workplaces. About half the respondents in each party said the federal government did a good job on roads and on ensuring access to high-quality education.
Government agencies: Individual government agencies also sometimes did better than one might expect. More than 80 percent of respondents were positive about the performance of the U.S. Postal Service. But just 39 percent have a favorable opinion of the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs, which had almost a 70 percent positive rating in 2013.
Although the Pew study was focused on the federal government, it also found a majority, 56 percent, saying that large corporations have a negative impact on the country. A similar majority said the entertainment industry has a negative impact, and almost two-thirds, 65 percent, said the same thing about the national news media.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have fresh evidence this morning that Americans continue to lack trust in their government. The evidence comes from a trusted source, the Pew Research Center, which released a poll showing that only 19 percent of Americans trust the government either always or most of the time - 19 percent. Yet big majorities also say they want the government to play a major role in national security, disaster relief, safety, education, the environment and the economy. They want the government to act. They just don't trust the government to do it. NPR Washington editor Ron Elving has been studying this survey. Ron, good morning.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What do you make of this?
ELVING: This is a Pew Research Center poll. That's one of the very best, most scientific and broad-based measures of opinion we have. And it shows a trend that's been continuing more or less for the last half-century but particularly in recent years. In this particular survey, more than 6,000 interviews in all 50 states over five weeks, ending October 4.
INSKEEP: Which is a much bigger sample size than a lot of surveys. Let me ask though, that 19 percent trust level, is that focusing just on the federal government, or does it also include state and local governments?
ELVING: The main focus is on the federal government, although there is a broader sense of disaffection that also would touch the state and local governments. People are also, I should say, down on career politicians and the major parties and the role of money in elections. And I must add, Steve, two-thirds of the respondents said that the news media in America are having a negative effect.
INSKEEP: I'm shocked - shocked - to hear that, Ron Elving. Let me just mention, though...
ELVING: So we don't do so well either...
INSKEEP: Well, exactly, exactly - but let me just mention, you know, it is a democracy. We're not entirely supposed to trust our government. Is 19 percent trust especially low?
ELVING: It's low compared to the high back in the early '60s, and I stress the early '60s - 1964 we hit a high of 77 percent in a comparable poll. Seventy-seven percent said they did have trust in government to always or most of the time do the right thing. The lowest we've ever gone is not too far below where we are right now - 17 percent was the low in 2010.
INSKEEP: What was so - what was different in the 1960s?
ELVING: Well, you know, you still had the Cold War going on. There was a lot of loyalty to the United States of America over, say, our communist adversaries. The Vietnam War was just beginning to enter the public consciousness. People hadn't gotten disillusioned about that war yet. And we still had a very positive element of the space program and the civil rights movement was in flower at that time. We had full employment and prosperity - probably Americans were richer right then than they'd ever been before and arguably better off than they are now.
INSKEEP: Oh, wow, so let me just ask you though, we have this situation with a 19 percent approval rating. Is it different - or not approval rating, trust in government rating - is that different if you're a Republican or a Democrat?
ELVING: It is different, although there is not a great a difference between the parties when you talk about wanting government to do certain things, agreed upon things. But when you talk about people who are angry at the government, Republicans and conservatives are three times more likely to say they're angry than people on the other side of the spectrum.
INSKEEP: But people still want the government to do stuff?
ELVING: They do. They seem to like the idea of government services, even federal government services. They do not like the level of service that they feel they get. They do want the federal government to manage immigration, not the states. They do want the government to do something to strengthen the economy, protect the environment, even improve education.
INSKEEP: OK, so how can they demand that much of the government but they don't trust the government to deliver?
ELVING: You know, there may be something in this word trust, Steve. It's built into the question going back six decades. But when you ask Americans that question now, it sounds a little different. It strains the contemporary American personality to say that any one of us really trusts the government always or most of the time. It's asking too much in the skeptical age. And we are just seeing too many stories about, say, the Veterans Administration hospitals or the Secret Service or pick your agency.
ELVING: And also, there's a lot of feeling that the government is just overwhelmed at times. Maybe...
ELVING: ...wrongheaded in its policy.
INSKEEP: Ron, thanks very much.
ELVING: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: I trust you. That's NPR's Ron Elving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.