Americans don’t like or trust government. We haven’t for a long time. Skepticism was probably present in the delivery room when our nation was born.
Nonetheless, there has been some trust in our system of government and its ability to protect citizens, ensure freedom and liberty, and clear obstacles away for opportunity to flourish. That has been on the decline though and our policymakers in Washington are doing little to make things better.
The Pew Research Center just released a chart of the percentage of people who trust government over the past 50+ years. Mapped over presidential administrations, we see a trend line of Americans that trust just about always or most of the time at around 75 percent in the late 1950s but dropping 40 percentage points over two decades through the presidencies of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter to a low of 26 percent just before President Reagan took office. Current trust levels hover in the high teens and low twenties under President Obama.
It’s notable that trust rose under Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and the start of Bush Jr. Two of the only sharp spikes in trust occurred under Republican presidents, the Gulf War and the 9/11 attacks. Also, out trust only climbed above 50 percent since falling under that threshold after 9/11.
Mapping other economic indicators on the chart such as unemployment, we see a correlation, but even that has been inconsistent under the Obama Administration where the decline in the unemployment rate is doing little to improve trust with Americans.
The Washington Post attributes the rises and falls to war but public policy and scandal also play roles.
The downward trajectory is stark. The collapse began during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, which, not coincidentally, overlapped with the Vietnam War. The 1970s — thanks to Vietnam and Watergate — sped up the loss of faith in the government. And, after a quasi-resurgence during the 1980s, the trend line for the past few decades is quite clear. With the exception of relatively brief spikes that overlap with the first Gulf War and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the number of people who trust the government has been steadily declining; the last time Pew asked the question, in February, just 24 percent said they trust the government "always" or "most of the time".
The collapse of our collective trust in the government — and, by extension, its ability or willingness to help solve problems — has massive reverberations for politicians.
It’s a little convenient for the Post to overlook policies in their assessment of this data. We had the Vietnam War and Watergate, but we also had a War on Poverty and Drugs and other expansions of government that have gone a long way to erode our faith and trust in the system and in lawmakers such as the rollout of ObamaCare last fall. Even President Bush lost major points in the latter years of his second term as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq waned as well as the economy stumbling prompting government intervention.
If nothing else, this chart reminds us that the health and performance of the economy is hugely important to Americans. We hold government accountable when they act/or don't act on ways that hinder growth.
The current Administration has focused on expansions of government power and reach at the expense of America’s freedom, economic growth, and job creation from ObamaCare to minimum wage increases to environmental regulations. Instead of pivoting back to the economy every year– conveniently just in time for the State of the Union –the President should focus on working with Congress to push for solutions that make starting, growing, and sustaining business easier such as lower taxes, less regulation, and less cronyism. We might then have more confidence in him and government to play the appropriate role in our lives and our work – a minimal one.