Majority Of Respondents Don't Trust Washington

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that nearly 80 percent of respondents say they can't trust Washington, and have little faith that the federal bureaucracy can solve the nation's ills. Director Andrew Kohut tells Steve Inskeep that only 22 percent said they can trust the federal government "almost always or most of the time."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Several surveys by the Pew Research Center came up with the same result.

MONTAGNE: In one interview after another, Americans were harshly critical of the government. The survey said Americans are more negative about the government, quote, "by almost every conceivable measure."

INSKEEP: In the coming days, we'll report on Americans' distrust of government. In a moment, we'll report on the long history of voter skepticism.

We begin with the man who oversaw this survey, Andrew Kohut.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): We are at one of the all-time low points in the percentage of people saying you can trust government all or most of the time. I think we just have 22 percent saying that. The last time that number was this low was in 1993-1994, a time politically, perhaps, not too different from now.

INSKEEP: A time when the country was emerging from a recession, when there was a new Democratic president, when incidentally, he was pushing for health care reform. That's interesting.

Mr. KOHUT: All of those things. And also a time when the country was, as you said, coming out of a recession, struggling. And we know that there's a very close correspondence between trust in government and how well the country is seen as doing, and particularly how well it's doing economically. The other thing is when the Democrats take the White House, Republican reaction to government is rather severe.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOHUT: More severe then among Democrats when a Republican president takes the White House.

INSKEEP: Why's that?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, I think because basically Republicans are the party of small government, and there's great fears that a Democratic president is going to be too activist. And we saw this as early as the spring of - late spring of 2009. Our trends, which had been showing more support for government, began to reverse themselves pretty early on in President Obama's administration.

INSKEEP: Is it possible that what has happened here over the last year is essentially that Republicans have won, or at least are winning, the rhetorical debate? They've managed to define the issues in a surprising way, given that they didn't have the White House, and more people are accepting their version of events.

Mr. KOHUT: They have certainly been more politically active than the Democrats. But the other thing is we can't forget that health care reform was the principal policy of the Obama administration, and that really raised the profile of government. When we asked people, and other polls asked people: Why do you object to health care reform - which a plurality of people said, the number one answer was we don't want that much government.

INSKEEP: And the objections to health care reform actually got stronger even as the bill was compromised and became less and less - according to the Democrats - intrusive.

Mr. KOHUT: Unchanged. I mean, really strong, intense opposition among many people. Granted, many people said I don't quite understand it. So there is some possibility that when we really see it, that the public will have a different point of view. But I think health care reform contributed in the latter part of last year - the second half of last year - to this growing concern about the power of government.

INSKEEP: Andrew Kohut, I want to pull back a little bit of the curtain here. We thought we were going to be talking to you about all this some weeks ago, and you looked at your survey results and decided you wanted to go out and do more work, more work after that, a series of surveys. I'd like to know if one of the reasons you went back and did so much surveying was that the initial results were so negative you weren't even sure they were right.

Mr. KOHUT: Well, we were concerned that we had done this in the middle of the health care reform controversy, and maybe we were getting kind of a misread on it. But we did two or three follow-up national surveys, and we found the same negative numbers.

We did see a little increase in the ratings for the Republican and Democratic congressional leadership, but very modest. It's still pretty negative. And this number of 25 percent having a favorable view of Congress is the lowest we've ever, ever obtained.

INSKEEP: What are the implications of that for the Democrats who are in majorities in both Houses now?

Mr. KOHUT: Trust in government is an issue that favors the Republicans, as we look forward to this midterm. When we look at independents who are frustrated with government, 66 percent say they're definitely going to vote. Overwhelmingly, they are disposed to vote Republican. Among the people who are not so critical of government, only 24 percent are disposed to definitely vote.

INSKEEP: Andrew Kohut, thanks very much.

Mr. KOHUT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: He's president of the Pew Research Center.

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Pew Poll: Trust In Government Hits Near-Historic Low

Americans' trust in government and its institutions has plummeted to a near-historic low, according to a sobering new survey by the Pew Research Center.

Only 22 percent of Americans surveyed by Pew say they can trust government in Washington "almost always or most of the time" — among the lowest measures in the half-century since pollsters have been asking the question.

And an increasing number — almost 1 of every 3 people — say they believe government is a major threat to their personal freedoms and want federal power reined in.

Pew asked people to say whether they were content, frustrated or angry with the federal government — and 3 of every 4 people said they were either frustrated or angry.

Heard On 'Morning Edition'

The public's unalloyed hostility flows from what Pew Center Director Andrew Kohut characterizes as a perfect storm of conditions: a bad economy, backlash against Washington partisanship and "epic discontent" with elected officials that found fuel in this year's bitter health care debate.

"Health care reform contributed in the second half of last year to this growing concern about the power of government," Kohut tells NPR.

"The public," he says, "wants a less activist government."

Kohut says measures of trust typically decline during Democratic administrations. Indeed, some of the previous lows in trust of government, as measured since 1958, were recorded during the Clinton and Carter administrations.

But the trust numbers were even lower at the close of the George W. Bush administration, dipping below 20 percent.

The current sour mood is expected to favor out-of-power Republicans in the fall midterm elections. But there's a caveat that should give pause to those on both sides of the aisle: Pew also found that the number of Americans who view Congress favorably declined by half over the past year, to 25 percent, the lowest Pew has ever recorded.

At A Glance: Key Survey Findings

  • Just 22 percent of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in a half-century.

  • Public hostility toward government seems likely to favor Republicans in the midterm elections this fall. But favorable ratings for both major parties, as well as Congress, have reached record lows.

  • The proportion of Americans who say they are "angry" with the federal government has doubled since 2000, increasing from 10 percent to 20 percent.

  • Independents who are highly frustrated with government are highly committed to voting this year, and they favor the GOP candidates in their district by a margin of 66 percent to 13 percent.

  • Explore More Of The Findings

Source: Pew Research Center

Americans, Kohut says, have a "relentlessly" negative view of Congress.

How Bad?

The results of the Pew survey, conducted in March, were so startlingly grim that Kohut says the organization did three follow-up surveys to verify its findings.

"We were concerned that we were getting a misread," Kohut told NPR's Steve Inskeep, because the original sample was taken during the height of the health-care debate in Congress.

Kohut's interview with Inskeep will air Monday on Morning Edition.

But Pew's additional surveys showed largely the same results: a disaffected and increasingly angry populace, disillusioned with state and federal government, as well as with federal departments ranging from the Food and Drug Administration to the Department of Education.

The mistrust that is permeating the electorate, Kohut says, is "about government writ large."

Measuring Anger

Pew surveys dating from 1997 show that an average of about 55 percent of Americans typically express frustration about the federal government, with the exception of a temporary spike in trust after Sept. 11.

In the current survey, 56 percent say they feel frustrated by the federal government. The big difference this time, according to the Pew survey, is the growing numbers who expressed "intense anti-government views."

The proportion of Americans who say they are angry has doubled since 2000. Now at 21 percent, it tops the previous high of 20 percent in 2006.

"The percentage who are angry is still small," Kohut says, "but it's twice as much as it was back in the late 1990s."

Pew found that intense anti-government sentiment is concentrated among Republicans, independents and others who lean Republican, as well as those who agree with the Tea Party movement.

Anti-government animus is particularly intense among the 30 percent of those surveyed who say that "government is a major threat to my personal freedoms," Kohut says.

Those numbers among people who identify with the Tea Party movement "go through the roof," he says. Fifty-seven percent in that group say the government is a major threat to them, and 43 percent say they are angry with the federal government.

Those negative feelings far outpace the view of traditional Republicans, 43 percent of whom said government is a major threat, and 30 percent who described themselves as angry. By contrast, 18 percent of Democrats view the government as a major threat, and only 9 percent say they are angry with the federal government.

Key Voters: Independents

The Democrats have several big worries going into the fall elections: growing disaffection among independents, and expected high turnout among those who are the angriest — and thus most motivated.

"The Democrats and liberals have been politically asleep when we talk about the intensity of their views," Kohut says. "There's just no comparison."

Independents who are "highly frustrated with government are highly committed to voting this year," he says. "And they favor the Republican candidates in their districts by an overwhelming 66-to-13 percent margin."

The survey also found that about a third of independents who lean Republican said that the Tea Party best reflects their view, with about the same number saying the Republican Party fits the bill.

Interestingly, only half of self-identified Republicans say their party best represents their views, with close to a third saying they believe their leanings are better reflected by the Tea Party.

The past year's backlash against government may be best illustrated by a couple of statistics, Kohut says.

Before President Obama took office last year, the public was "pretty much evenly divided" about what size government the country needed, with 42 percent advocating for a smaller government and 43 percent for a bigger one.

Now, 50 percent of those surveyed want a smaller government; 39 percent want a bigger one that provides more services. That comes even as 61 percent of those surveyed say they think stricter regulation of financial companies is a good idea — up from 54 percent in October of last year.

"We've had some backlash," Kohut says. "Washington and politics have poisoned the well in terms of trust in government."

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