Series Overview: Trust In Government

The Pew Research Center has released a poll on trust in government, finding, to no one's surprise, that there is precious little of it.

For the remainder of April, NPR programs on air and online will explore the implications of this poll, and the root causes of the growing distrust of American government among Americans.

The poll surveyed more than 2,500 Americans of voting age in the second week of March, with follow-up polls done in April. In general, Pew found distrust and dislike of government to be as high as at any time since pollsters began posing similar questions two generations ago.

Why is the government so distrusted at this moment? What does that mean for government's ability and willingness to tackle big problems, or to enforce the solutions it devises? Is skepticism about the efficacy of government in some ways a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Some of the stories to be told by NPR reporters in the coming days concern specific issues — the deficit, the wars, the new health care law — that disturb many Americans and make them wonder whether Washington understands their strongly held views.

Others concern the psychological roots of the suspicion with which Americans have often regarded authority. We are in a real sense a nation of rebels, skeptics and resisters. What changes from one era to the next is not the underlying attitude or national character; it is rather the mix of policies and preachments we are pushing back against.

Change Of Direction In Obama Era

Right now, the American polity is responding to a wrenching change of direction personified by President Obama. The previous three decades had been dominated by a public philosophy embodied by President Reagan. Through this period of deconstruction, under Republican administrations and Democratic as well, the primary thrust of government change was toward deregulation and decentralization.

The idea was to restrain the power of Washington and shrink the federal footprint on the economy and the culture. But beyond that, the idea was to restore some of the prevailing presumptions of American politics in earlier generations. The pendulum that had swung one way in the 1960s and much of the 1970s began to swing back in the midterm elections of 1978, accelerating with Reagan's sweeping election in 1980 and re-election in 1984.

Timeline: A History Of Discontent

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA.) holds up his "Contract With America." i i

hide captionHouse Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) holds up his "Contract With America."

John Duricka/AP
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA.) holds up his "Contract With America."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) holds up his "Contract With America."

John Duricka/AP

The era of President Clinton seemed to interrupt this general flow of events, but after two years of attempting major changes to the system (especially on gun control, trade deals, greater government involvement in health care and gays in the military), Clinton stepped back and played defense against a newly Republican Congress. He did so throughout the rest of his presidency, and he was followed in office by George W. Bush, who openly espoused a return to Reaganism.

Dissatisfaction With National Institutions

But while the to and fro of day-to-day politics figures front and center in the current national dissatisfaction, there are other sources of dissatisfaction evident in the Pew Research poll as well.

One of these is the general sense of disaffection with national institutions other than the government. While the low standing of government in general — and Congress in particular — has received wide attention in recent months, the Pew poll shows a comparable level of dislike toward banks and financial institutions (22 percent positive, 69 percent negative). Large corporations do only slightly better (25 percent positive, 64 percent negative), a ratio that almost exactly matches the public scoring of the overall federal government (25 percent positive, 65 percent negative).

Reflecting distress from the economic meltdown of 2008, an increasing proportion of the populace believes it was ill-used in the bank rescue and other emergency moves made to keep the credit system working. That is why, with all the distrust in government, more than 3 out of 5 Americans still think it's for Washington to do more to rein in banks.

On the broader economic front, the slow and hard-to-measure effects of the 2009 Obama administration stimulus plan — and the widespread perception of it as pork and political theater — have embittered many of those who saw high unemployment as a reason to vote Democratic. It has not helped that some of the stimulus money has taken more than a year to reach its targets, while elements of the program have been targets themselves as examples of pork or governmental mismanagement.

What was meant to be as much a psychological boost for the economy as a material one has instead proved to be a psychological negative — even if it has prevented the loss of some jobs and encouraged the return or creation of others.

The new health care law, which absorbed so much of the energy for the Obama administration, has also contributed to feelings of frustration, both for supporters and for opponents. While much of the yearlong struggle wound up restraining the role of government in the new health insurance system, the perception of a governmental takeover of the entire system remains strong.

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