Polls Show More Than Tea Party Anger Toward Government

Americans’ trust in government is about as low as it has been in half a century, but the story gets more complicated when you look at specific cases.

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By Jodie Allen, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Anti-government crusaders have found ample confirmation in a recent Pew Research Center poll showing that Americans’ trust in government is about as low as it has been in half a century: only 22 percent now say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time. Support for a more activist government role in addressing national problems continues to decline along with satisfaction with the state of the nation’s economy.

Discontent with government performance is not, however, a new story in this land of ours. With the exception of a brief “rally round the flag” dip post-9/11, about the same relatively small majority of the public (now some 56 percent) has said they were frustrated with the federal government since the ’90s. Still, as the report notes, the segment of the public that holds intense anti-government views--those saying that they are “angry” at the feds--while still small, now matches the high reached in October 2006 (20 percent).

But while other major institutions have not been the focus of organized protests for irate citizens, many score no higher than the government on the public’s report card. Banks, financial institutions, and large corporations earn no more positive rating than the feds in terms of their effects on the way things are going in the country. And, as is often the case with regard to Americans’ views of public policy, the story gets somewhat more complicated when you get down to specific cases.

Only 40 percent now want the government to get more involved with the economy, for example. But back in March 2009, when the specter of total financial collapse loomed large, the public took a different view, opting for more government control by a 54-to-37 percent margin. And when it comes to the particular case of regulation of the way major financial companies do business, the clear majority (61 percent) wants more stringent government regulation, a level virtually unchanged from last April (60 percent).

This same inconsistency between assessments at the general level and those relating to the particular is, of course, also seen in the public’s views of the federal budget. Surveys routinely find the public supportive of reducing the deficit--Pew Research's annual public policy priorities survey, released in January, found 60 percent saying that reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority for the president and Congress, up from 53 percent a year earlier. But, as noted in a recent Pew Research report, when it comes to specific program cuts, that support fades away. (A recent CBS News/New York Times survey, for example, found that by a two-to-one ratio Americans oppose cuts in health and education spending.)

Nor are people’s actual interactions with government uniformly, or even predominantly negative. A recent Pew Internet & American Life survey found that a large majority of online Americans (82 percent comprising 61 percent of all U.S. adults) had accessed information and services at a government website in the previous year. And the great preponderance of these users, about 8 in 10, said that their online interactions with the government led to a fully (51 percent) or mostly (28 percent) satisfactory conclusion. Only 5 percent said they had accomplished none of what they set out to do.

For that matter, most Americans (70 percent), whatever their views of government’s trustworthiness, still think the government is a good place to work; and 56 percent say if they had a son or daughter getting out of school they would like to see him or her pursue a career in government.

And on a personal note, I will observe that in the course of a move from our home of many decades to a condo apartment last week, I spent many long and frustrating hours listening to a mixture of recorded apologies and muzak while trying to effectuate the transfer of our phone, TV, and Internet services to our new abode by the relevant private sector entities--this despite efforts to smooth that transfer beginning three weeks prior to our relocation which also necessitated prolonged telephonic episodes. By contrast, the switch of our postal deliveries, including mail forwarding, was accomplished in a few minutes online and was fully operational the very first day of our move. Nor am I alone in having a positive experience with the U.S. Postal Service--no fewer than 83 percent of Americans view the government-run service in a favorable light.

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