STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have fresh evidence this morning that Americans continue to lack trust in their government. The evidence comes from a trusted source, the Pew Research Center, which released a poll showing that only 19 percent of Americans trust the government either always or most of the time - 19 percent. Yet big majorities also say they want the government to play a major role in national security, disaster relief, safety, education, the environment and the economy. They want the government to act. They just don't trust the government to do it. NPR Washington editor Ron Elving has been studying this survey. Ron, good morning.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What do you make of this?
ELVING: This is a Pew Research Center poll. That's one of the very best, most scientific and broad-based measures of opinion we have. And it shows a trend that's been continuing more or less for the last half-century but particularly in recent years. In this particular survey, more than 6,000 interviews in all 50 states over five weeks, ending October 4.
INSKEEP: Which is a much bigger sample size than a lot of surveys. Let me ask though, that 19 percent trust level, is that focusing just on the federal government, or does it also include state and local governments?
ELVING: The main focus is on the federal government, although there is a broader sense of disaffection that also would touch the state and local governments. People are also, I should say, down on career politicians and the major parties and the role of money in elections. And I must add, Steve, two-thirds of the respondents said that the news media in America are having a negative effect.
INSKEEP: I'm shocked - shocked - to hear that, Ron Elving. Let me just mention, though...
ELVING: So we don't do so well either...
INSKEEP: Well, exactly, exactly - but let me just mention, you know, it is a democracy. We're not entirely supposed to trust our government. Is 19 percent trust especially low?
ELVING: It's low compared to the high back in the early '60s, and I stress the early '60s - 1964 we hit a high of 77 percent in a comparable poll. Seventy-seven percent said they did have trust in government to always or most of the time do the right thing. The lowest we've ever gone is not too far below where we are right now - 17 percent was the low in 2010.
INSKEEP: What was so - what was different in the 1960s?
ELVING: Well, you know, you still had the Cold War going on. There was a lot of loyalty to the United States of America over, say, our communist adversaries. The Vietnam War was just beginning to enter the public consciousness. People hadn't gotten disillusioned about that war yet. And we still had a very positive element of the space program and the civil rights movement was in flower at that time. We had full employment and prosperity - probably Americans were richer right then than they'd ever been before and arguably better off than they are now.
INSKEEP: Oh, wow, so let me just ask you though, we have this situation with a 19 percent approval rating. Is it different - or not approval rating, trust in government rating - is that different if you're a Republican or a Democrat?
ELVING: It is different, although there is not a great a difference between the parties when you talk about wanting government to do certain things, agreed upon things. But when you talk about people who are angry at the government, Republicans and conservatives are three times more likely to say they're angry than people on the other side of the spectrum.
INSKEEP: But people still want the government to do stuff?
ELVING: They do. They seem to like the idea of government services, even federal government services. They do not like the level of service that they feel they get. They do want the federal government to manage immigration, not the states. They do want the government to do something to strengthen the economy, protect the environment, even improve education.
INSKEEP: OK, so how can they demand that much of the government but they don't trust the government to deliver?
ELVING: You know, there may be something in this word trust, Steve. It's built into the question going back six decades. But when you ask Americans that question now, it sounds a little different. It strains the contemporary American personality to say that any one of us really trusts the government always or most of the time. It's asking too much in the skeptical age. And we are just seeing too many stories about, say, the Veterans Administration hospitals or the Secret Service or pick your agency.
ELVING: And also, there's a lot of feeling that the government is just overwhelmed at times. Maybe...
ELVING: ...wrongheaded in its policy.
INSKEEP: Ron, thanks very much.
ELVING: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: I trust you. That's NPR's Ron Elving.
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