Why It Matters that Fewer Americans Trust Government to ‘Do the Right Thing’

Deseret News
December 14, 2016

When Donald Trump predicted the election would be stolen, and in the second debate refused to promise to accept the results, Hillary Clinton at the time called Trump's comments "horrifying," noting that accepting election outcomes is a hallmark of American democracy.

But Trump had struck a chord with his base, as he so often did. A Pew poll just before the election showed that a solid 56 percent of his supporters had little or no confidence that the election would be "open and fair."

Of course, a Yougov poll found that 42 percent of Democrats thought the election was rigged. So it's not just Trump supporters.

And it's not new.

Across the board, key measures of trust in our political system are down. Gallup recently reported that trust in the American people's own "judgments under our democratic system about the issues facing our country" has hit a new low, dropping 20 points since 2004.

And the Pew Research Center reports that trust in government to "do the right thing" also hit historic lows, having fallen sharply after 2001 and has not recovered since.

"This has been as bad a period for trust in government as we've had in a long time," said Donald Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "It's been a very depressing story for the past 15 years or so.

"And when we have candidates who are saying that we can't trust our institutions," Kettl said, "the problems multiply."

To be fair, most Americans have expressed distrust in government since the 1960s, with dips and recoveries along the way. But now the valleys seem to be getting deeper and the recoveries less reliable, leading some experts to fear that something fundamental has changed and that commitment to democratic institutions may be nearing a tipping point.

Deepening distrust

Polls first began looking at trust in government in 1958, and the high tide on this measure was in 1964 when, still glowing from the idealized Kennedy era, 77 percent just trusted government to "do the right thing" all or most of the time.

But that turned out to be the crest of a steady downward slide that did not stop until 1980, when trust in government hit a new low of 27 percent. Trust then rebounded to the mid-40s through much of the 1980s economic boom, but following the 1992 recession it slipped again, bottoming out at 19 percent in 1994. In the late 1990s, with a growing economy, trust in government rebounded from 1995 onward, reaching a high of 54 percent just after the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

At this point, most observers assumed that economics and trust would remain closely linked. "There had long been a link between an improving economy and trust that the government will do the right thing," said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies public opinion.

But something had changed.

Economic booms in the 1980s and 1990s had markedly improved trust, long after Vietnam and Watergate were fading memories. But the strong economy until 2007 and the post-crash recovery since 2011 both offered no boost. Confidence fell from 2001 to the 20 percent levels by 2007, then fell to a historic low of 15 percent in 2011, stabilizing just above that point since.

No one is quite sure why. But one theory for the delinking of economic growth from citizen trust points to growing economic insecurity felt by many voters, Kettl suggests, a growing sense that rising tides no longer lift all boats, with whole segments of the population being left behind.

Insiders & cronyism

Those being left behind, culturally and economically, are more likely to see a wealthy influencers class thriving inside the D.C. Beltway as privileged and corrupt.

“Equal rights to all, special privilege to none” was Andrew Jackson's slogan in the 1820s, which captured his opposition to public works projects and the national bank, which he saw as cesspools of graft.

To this day, Jackson's battle cry still finds echoes in populist movements on both the left and the right, recently in both the Occupy Wall Street and tea party insurgencies that flowered in response to the financial crash of 2009 and the massive bailouts and stimulus packages that followed.

Any time government throws large amounts of cash around, argues John Garen, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky, political influence and connections will often matter more than merit.

And the larger such projects become, he argues, the more all involved are driven to get in the game, creating a spiral of politics and personal influence in seeking and distributing benefits.

The result, Garen says, is a spiral in which mistrust generates more lobbying efforts to influence government, forcing others to play the game. Those standing outside see a system that benefits well-connected special interests.

"No one likes cronyism," Garen argues, "and that was one confluence of interest between Occupy Wall Street and the tea party."

Disputed goals

But fears of corruption are only part of the story. Much of the distrust of government today, Karlyn Bowman argues, stems from vastly different ideas about what and how much government is asked to do.

"We're a rich and powerful country and people do want government to do many things," Bowman said, "and over time, the more it does, the more there is to criticize."

In fact, trusting government to "do the right thing" presupposes agreement on goals. And while causes might be disputed, Bowman notes that trust has eroded as government has sought to do more and more with corresponding divisions.

Two government istitutions that have been largely immune to this slide, Bowman notes, are the police and the military. The military exception, she suggests, is due to "its mission being clearly and narrowly defined, while government as a whole has so many responsibilities that open it up to criticism."

Some of America's deepest racial divides center on confidence in local police and the justice system. A recent Gallup poll found that 58 percent of whites have "a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police," but just 29 percent of blacks agree. A whopping 76 percent of blacks feel the justice system is racially biased, compared to a much smaller but still sizable 45 percent of whites.

In short, for the public at large, the police remain one of the few institutions still held in high regard, standing just below the military and small business. But the criminal justice system as a whole struggles, beating out only bottom-feeders: TV news, newspapers, big business and Congress.

Meanwhile, on divisive issues from health care to transgender bathrooms, every move in one direction alienates half the country.

Immigration is a case in point. According to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent view "managing the immigration system" as a key role of the federal government, but only 28 percent approve of how it is handling it.

And yet, any effort to actually manage the immigration system would likely founder on sharp divides over how much legal immigration to allow and how to enforce existing laws at the borders.