NPR logo In Depth: Americans' Distrust Of Government

In Depth: Americans' Distrust Of Government

The American public wants the government reformed and its power curtailed, according to new findings from the Pew Research Center. The survey found that Americans generally don't want government solutions for the nation's problems — and that favorability ratings for both major parties and Congress have reached record lows. Here, a breakdown of some key findings.

  • Trust & Satisfaction
  • Who's Angry?
  • By Administration
  • Distrust Of Institutions
  • Views Of Congress

Trust In Government And Views Of National Conditions

A dismal economy, an unhappy public, partisan-based backlash and discontent with Congress and elected officials have created what Pew calls "a perfect storm of conditions" associated with distrust of government. Just 22 percent of Americans say that they can trust the federal government almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century.

Graph showing trust in government vs. satisfaction with the state of the nation, 1978-2010

Who's Angry At The Federal Government?

Intense anti-government views are concentrated among Republicans, independents who lean Republican and those who agree with the Tea Party movement, Pew found. Some 56 percent of those polled say they are "frustrated" with the federal government, findings that are in line with previous surveys. But the percentage of people who say they're "angry" with the government has doubled since 2000, to 21 percent. These attitudes could have an impact on the congressional elections in November: Independents who are frustrated with the government are committed to voting and say they favor Republican candidates over Democratic ones in their district 66 percent to 13 percent.

  Angry with the
federal government
Government is
a major threat
Total 20% 30%
Republican 30% 43%
Democrat 9% 18%
Independent 25% 33%
Among independents
Lean Republican 37% 50%
Lean Democratic 15% 21%
View of Tea Party
Agree with (22%) 43% 57%
Disagree with (14%) 8% 9%
Neither/DK (61%) 15% 25%

Trust In Government By Administration

Trust in government is typically higher among members of the party that controls the White House than among those in the "out" party. But Republicans' views of government change more dramatically than do Democrats', depending on which party is in control. This can be seen in the Obama era, where the president's policies, including overhauling the health care system, have upset Republicans. Only 13 percent of Republicans today say they can trust Washington to do the right thing.

Administration Total Rep. Dem. Ind. R-D diff.
Barack Obama (D) 22% 13% 33% 18% -21%
George W. Bush (R) 37% 50% 26% 28% +24%
Bill Clinton (D) 29% 25% 34% 24% -9%
George H.W. Bush (R) 36% 44% 29% 30% +15%
Ronald Reagan (R) 42% 53% 34% 38% +19%
Jimmy Carter (D) 29% 27% 33% 27% -6%
Nixon/Ford (R) 40% 51% 41% 43% +10%
Kennedy/Johnson (D) 68% 62% 72% 65% -10%
NET: Republican admins 39% 50% 30% 33% +20%
NET: Democratic admins 30% 27% 38% 27% -11%


Figures show the average percent saying they always or most of the time trust the government in Washington to do what is right across surveys conducted over the course of each administration. The Kennedy/Johnson and Nixon/Ford administrations are combined because relatively few surveys were conducted during those periods.

Public's Negative Views Of Institutions Not Limited To Government

The public is discontent not only with the White House and Congress but also with many of the country's major institutions -- most notably, banks and other financial companies and the national news media.

Institution Positive Negative Other/DK
Banks and financial institutions 22% 69% 10%
Congress 24% 65% 12%
Federal government 25% 65% 9%
Large corporations 25% 64% 12%
National news media 31% 57% 12%
Federal agencies and departments 31% 54% 16%
Labor unions 32% 49% 18%
Entertainment industry 33% 51% 16%
Obama administration 45% 45% 10%
Colleges and universities 61% 26% 13%
Churches and religious organizations 63% 22% 15%
Technology companies 68% 18% 14%
Small businesses 70% 19% 10%


Figures may not add to 100% because of rounding.

Favorability Ratings For Congress Reach Record Lows

Congress and the major political parties face record discontent among Americans. Both the Democratic and Republican parties' favorable ratings are at their lowest point ever in Pew Research surveys. And favorable opinions of Congress have dropped to half of what they were a year ago. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed now say they have an unfavorable view of Congress, the lowest rating in 25 years.

Graph: Favorability ratings of the Democratic Party, Republican Party and Congress, 2004-2010