Home / Blog / Article


November 24 2015

Just One in Five Americans Trusts the Government

Patrice J. Lee

This Thanksgiving we’re thankful for many things, but for many Americans government doesn’t make the list.

Americans are deeply skeptical about the federal government, politics, and our elected officials. Given the way government functions and the arrogance of government employees, we should not be surprised.

A new Pew  study finds that 19 percent of Americans –nearly one in five- trust the government always or most of the time. This is among the lowest levels in the past half-century.

Majorities of American still want the government to do things that, in fact, are the constitutional duties of the government. These would include fighting terrorism, responding to natural disasters, managing immigration, and maintain the national infrastructure. However, we overwhelmingly (80 percent) think the federal government doesn’t run programs well and 59 percent say government is very in need of reform.

In addition to government's poor performance, party affiliation  plays a role in how we view government Pew finds:

The partisan divide over the size and scope of government remains as wide as ever: Support for smaller government endures as a Republican touchstone. Fully 80% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they prefer a smaller government with fewer services, compared with just 31% of Democrats and Democratic leaners.

Yet both Republicans and Democrats favor significant government involvement on an array of specific issues. Among the public overall, majorities say the federal government should have a major role in dealing with 12 of 13 issues included in the survey, all except advancing space exploration.

Some 74 percent of Americans say those we put in office put their own interests ahead of the country’s interest. We think they are doing so poorly that more than half of us (55 percent) think we could do a better job ourselves. Those running for President, Congress, governor and the host of open seats in 2016 should do well to understand that. Perhaps it’s why political “outsiders” have gained so much traction during this election cycle.

NPR traces the downturn in public trust from a high of more than  70 percent in the 1960s:

Confidence in government has clearly suffered over the ensuing decades, with Vietnam, Watergate, energy crises, various economic troubles, partisan gridlock in Washington and the recent frustrations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that is not to mention the myriad stories of administrative breakdowns, personnel problems and computer hacking.

The trust level generally trended downward after the mid-1960s in the National Election Study, and in polls by Gallup, the New York Times and other news organizations, descending below 30 percent for the first time in the late 1970s. The trust level percentage rose into the 40s at times during the middle part of Ronald Reagan's presidency, declined through most of George H.W. Bush's presidency and fell all the way to 20 percent during the second year of Bill Clinton's time in the White House. Thereafter, however, an improving economy helped the trust level recover again.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the trust level briefly got over 50 percent again. But it fell rapidly thereafter through the George W. Bush years and slipped below 20 percent during the presidency of Barack Obama. In 2011, the moving average of major polls including the Pew Research Poll showed trust at just 17 percent.

It is not surprising that NPR wants to link the decline in warm and fuzzy feelings about the government to particular scandals rather than a growing awareness that government has grown too big and is no longer able to do the myriad functions assigned to it.

Of course, we see in these scandals that there is no shortage of the ways in which government fails people. From the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) failing again to keep weapons from slipping through airport security to the discriminatory targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to the abhorrent mishandling of veterans by the Department f Veterans Affairs (VA), which led to dozens of deaths, government shows arrogance and incompetence.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
Follow us