Pew Research Center just released a new survey on people’s attitude’s toward government. The report’s title–“Distrust, Discontent, Anger, and Partisan Rancor: the People and Their Government,”–definitely has a glass-half-empty ring to it. Yet for those who value liberty and free markets, it’s good news that a growing number of Americans recognize that more government isn’t the answer to our countries’ problems, but is often a cause of our problems.

Here’s some highlights from the Pew report:

Just 22% say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century. About the same percentage (19%) says they are “basically content” with the federal government, which is largely unchanged from 2006 and 2007, but lower than a decade ago.

Opinions about elected officials are particularly poor. In a follow-up survey in early April, just 25% expressed a favorable opinion of Congress, which was virtually unchanged from March (26%), prior to passage of the health care reform bill. This is the lowest favorable rating for Congress in a quarter century of Pew Research Center surveys. Over the last year, favorable opinions of Congress have declined by half – from 50% to 25%….

As was the case in the 1997 study of attitudes about government, more people say the bigger problem with government is that it runs its programs inefficiently (50%) than that it has the wrong priorities (38%). But the percentage saying government has the wrong priorities has increased sharply since 1997 – from 29% to 38%.

Perhaps related to this trend, the survey also finds a rise in the percentage saying the federal government has a negative effect on their day-to-day lives. In October 1997, 50% said the federal government had a positive effect on their daily lives, compared with 31% who said its impact was negative. Currently, 38% see the federal government’s personal impact as positive while slightly more (43%) see it as negative. ….

The size and power of the federal government also engender considerable concern. A 52% say it is a major problem that the government is too big and powerful, while 58% say that the federal government is interfering too much in state and local matters.

The public is now evenly divided over whether federal government programs should be maintained to deal with important problems (50%) or cut back greatly to reduce the power of government (47%). In 1997, a clear majority (57%) said government programs should be maintained….

A desire for smaller government is particularly evident since Barack Obama took office. In four surveys over the past year, about half have consistently said they would rather have a smaller government with fewer services, while about 40% have consistently preferred a bigger government providing more services. In October 2008, shortly before the presidential election the public was evenly divided on this issue (42% smaller government, 43% bigger government).

The press often covers trends in politics as if everything is a personality-driven game of chess. As if Al Gore’s color scheme or the number of times President Obama plays golf motivates voters. The Tea Parties and surveys like this remind us that Americans have concerns about the fundamental structure of government and how Washington is run. People are genuinely concerned that government is trying to do too much, and that we are turning over our liberties for the promise of security.

Lawmakers should know this: it’s not your campaign ads that are going to decide your fate in November, it’s your position on these fundamental questions.