Rising Distrust Is Wind In Conservatives' Sails

Recent polls show that many Americans distrust the federal government — a viewpoint that is especially common among conservatives. To many conservatives, the poll results mean that the broader public is coming around to their viewpoint — and giving them political momentum.

The Pew Research Center poll puts overall trust in Washington and the federal government at 22 percent. Break it down to Republicans only, and the number drops to 12 percent.

In a recent appearance on Fox News, comedian Dennis Miller listed the only things he thinks Washington is good at.

"I want Barack Obama to roll the eggs out on the lawn at Easter. I want him to save the bird's neck at Thanksgiving. I want him to light the tree at Christmas and fund the military," Miller said. "And the rest of it — I just don't trust the government. I'm not paranoid. I'm not a militia guy. I just don't think they know what they're doing."

Trust Is Tied To The Oval Office

So, conservatives don't trust the government: That sounds like a "Dog Bites Man" story. But Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center says there's a "Man Bites Dog" angle to this story, as well. He notes that, over time, Republicans are actually no more distrusting of government than Democrats.

"That is one of the surprising findings," Dimock says. "Even though Republicans are more ideologically conservative about the role of government, they can feel very positive about government — when there's a Republican president."

Past polling shows that Republicans exhibited extremely high levels of trust in government under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — far higher, in fact, than the trust Democrats showed during much of Bill Clinton's presidency, and today with President Obama.

President Obama helps Lilian Plouffe with her egg during the White House Egg Roll. i i

hide captionApproved Activity: Comedian and pundit Dennis Miller says President Obama should confine himself to ceremonial tasks, like presiding over the recent White House Egg Roll.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama helps Lilian Plouffe with her egg during the White House Egg Roll.

Approved Activity: Comedian and pundit Dennis Miller says President Obama should confine himself to ceremonial tasks, like presiding over the recent White House Egg Roll.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

It's the activist approach to government by the Obama White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress that stirs up the current level of conservative animosity.

And that's helping to energize Republicans looking to make big gains in this year's midterm elections.

Sour Economy Brings Anger And Confusion

Last Saturday, the conservative group Young Americans for Freedom hosted a race — called the Freedom 5K — in Washington, D.C.'s Rock Creek Park.

Jordan Marks, the group's executive director, said young conservatives' lack of trust in government is understandable.

"In America, you're told you go to school, you get an education, you get a degree, and this great American society is going to be there for you and you'll have this wonderful life," Marks said.

But suddenly that promise has disappeared, he said.

Pew researchers say the economy is a big factor driving down the public's trust in government. A huge part of that was the subprime mortgage crisis. And for conservatives, the government bailouts that started in the Bush administration and continued under Obama only increased their frustration and distrust.

Conservatives have long argued that the financial industry needed more freedom and fewer regulations to thrive. Democrats say that hands-off approach is what caused the crisis. But conservatives disagree with that assessment.

"Part of the trusting problem goes to the fact that you didn't leave them alone, in the sense that you had laissez-faire until they went bankrupt — then the taxpayer is brought in as the investor of last resort," says John Samples of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

"Certainly, for conservatives, it's an embarrassing situation, but also one that pushes you toward saying the government did something wrong — including President Bush," Samples says.

Kathleen Gudaitis, of Johnston, R.I., protests against the health care reform bill. i i

hide captionIt's The Principle: After President Obama signed the new health care bill into law last month, Kathleen Gudaitis, of Johnston, R.I., was among those protesting the overhaul as an overstepping of boundaries.

Gretchen Ertl/AP
Kathleen Gudaitis, of Johnston, R.I., protests against the health care reform bill.

It's The Principle: After President Obama signed the new health care bill into law last month, Kathleen Gudaitis, of Johnston, R.I., was among those protesting the overhaul as an overstepping of boundaries.

Gretchen Ertl/AP

Intense Distrust And Midterm Elections

The Pew poll results contain another number related to conservatives' distrust of government. Of those surveyed, 21 percent said they are not just frustrated with government — they're actually angry. That's double the number who said the same thing during the last Democratic administration.

Such anger has been on display at Tea Party events and at other rallies across the country over the past year. And it's that kind of intensity that is energizing Republicans in this election season.

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