Measuring Distrust of Washington: Who Is That Fifth American?

The Pew Research Center on Monday released a poll on trust in government, finding precious little of it.

Distrust of Washington is especially rampant, with four of out five Americans expressing discontent with the federal government.

Is anyone surprised by this? Of course not. The first question you want to ask is, who is that fifth American?

It's been years since we've seen a positive balance on the pollster's favorite question: Are things in this country going in the right direction or are we on the wrong track? It's been as bad as 20 percent right and 75 percent wrong in 2008, and now it's a barely better 35 percent right and 65 percent wrong.

And when that ratio is bad, the government is always held responsible.

The Pew data also found a general sense of disaffection with national institutions other than the government. Banks and financial institutions got a 22 percent positive ( 69 percent negative), while large corporations did only slightly better at 25 percent positive (64 percent negative).

But no one expects banks and Big Business to be popular or reflect the will of the people. And their leaders don't have to face the voters, whose mood is likely to stay ugly for months to come.

And why not? Even if the economy is out of so-called Great Recession, the jobless numbers are not. So neither is consumer sentiment. The stimulus, meant to be a psychological boost as much as a material one, has had meager yields on both counts.

Reflecting distress from the economic meltdown of 2008, an increasing proportion of the populace believes it was ill-used in the bank rescue — even it did keep the credit system working. That is why, with all the distrust in government, a clear majority stills wants Washington to do more to rein in Wall Street.

Beyond that, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — both the works of Washington — drag on. Tensions around the world remain uncomfortably high, achievement scores in the schools uncomfortably low.

It seems that any time you hear about a federal agency, be it the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Mining Safety and Health Administration, they have somehow failed to prevent something. They may have their eye on Wall Street and the mining companies, yet Goldman Sachs and Massey Energy seem to let them do whatever they want.

And Congress? The lawmakers who are in some sense responsible for the rest of the government are the least trusted of all. They are the ones who repealed the old restraints on the banks and the financial system, the ones who allow mines to operate despite stacks of citations for unsafe conditions and the ones who vote to wage war around the world without taxes to pay for it.

A Sea Change

On top of all this, the nation is sensitized to its relationship with Washington because it is still absorbing a shock. That would be the shock of having President Barack Obama replace President George W. Bush. The shock applies in different ways to those who voted for it or against it.

The most fervent Obama backers may have had two shocks: Amazed that he won, they are now disappointed that Washington and the world did not change overnight. Those least supportive of the new president now say their worst fears are being confirmed.

But all sides are right to feel the ground shifting beneath them. The coming of Obama was not just a course correction, it was a sea change. The previous three decades had been dominated by a public philosophy embodied by President Ronald Reagan, who liked to say government wasn't the solution but the problem.

Reaganism rose in the late 1970s and conservatives went on the march. They won every presidential election except the Bill Clinton elections of 1992 and 1996 (both three-way contests won with a plurality). And if Clinton would never be confused with Reagan or the two Presidents Bush, his presidency often echoed their rhetoric of smaller government (as when he told the nation "the era of big government is over") and accomplished such goals as welfare cutbacks and a balanced federal budget.

Still, if the IDEA of government was more or less in retreat for 30 years, the REALITY of government was growing all along. And at times, it sought to expand its power and use it aggressively. Think of Clinton's early efforts to overhaul the health care system or restrict guns. Think of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, secret detention systems and surveillance of citizens within the U.S.

The 2008 election was felt on the left as the eruption of pent-up demand for government action and change. But a large number of other Americans arrived at Election Day feeling angry because the restraint of government promised by Reaganism had not been fulfilled.

Their unhappiness then was the mirror opposite of that expressed by Democrats. And now, eighteen months later, their distress at the stimulus plan and the health care bill are the mirror opposite of Obama backers' disappointment with the pace of change.

Whichever side of that mirror you may be on, it doesn't look good. Mix enough outrage on the right with enough disaffection on the left and you have one big unhappy country.

So again you wonder, who is that fifth American?

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