Low Trust in Government Is Not a Big Problem

A government held in low esteem may actually be better for democracy.

Speaker of the House John Boehner swears in members of the 113th U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 3, 2013. Congress members are facing an especially tough election in 2014.

Politicians are held to account more now than they were throughout much of our history. 

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Yesterday, the globe-spanning public relations firm Edelman came to the Graduate School of Political Management and during a panel comprised of executives, academics and journalists discussed the major findings of the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer. This report on the public’s level of trust around the world for each of the last fourteen years is full of intriguing data points.

A historically large gap (21 percent) in trust between business (58 percent) and government (37 percent) exists in the United States. While much of this can be attributed to the 20 point rebound in trust in business since the sector’s fall from grace in 2009 (compare slide 20 from 2012 report and slide 24 from this year’s report), it is also clear that over these last five years, government hasn’t much made it off the bottom. Americans’ trust in government to do “the right thing” fell to 30 percent in 2009; it now stands at 38 percent.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

No doubt this reading is low, but when one looks at the long-term trend in the 2012 report, perhaps what is most interesting is that U.S. trust in government was even lower (27 percent) in 2001 (pre-9/11). In essence, despite witnessing all of the recent political shenanigans (shutdown and debt ceiling dramas, fiscal cliff fears and ACA maneuvers, etc.), the public trusts government more now than when the budget was balanced, poverty levels and unemployment were low and the economy was growing.

How could this be?

It is true that the presidential election of 2000, with its Florida recounts and Supreme Court decision, stirred up partisan discord and institutional uncertainty among Americans. But the bigger issue is that we’re still recovering from the back-to-back debacles of Vietnam and Watergate.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Pew Research Center has helpfully compiled data from a number of sources measuring public trust, and what its summary chart shows is that trust in government hasn’t registered above the 60-percent mark since 1968. Further, with the exception of brief stints in the late 1980s and early 2000s, trust in government has mostly ranged between 20 and 40 percent. In short, these are not truly extraordinary times.

But the more important question is: What is the optimal level of trust in government? Should we aspire to return to the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, when trust regularly clocked in above 70 percent? Or should we look with a more skeptical eye at those institutions (government, business and the media) that wield substantial power?

Let’s not forget that prior to the mid-1960s, few women or minorities had any voice in politics and government. The violent confrontations in the South over civil rights and the painfully escalating war in Vietnam aroused young people who loudly proclaimed, “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” And after the illegal acts and crass partisanship of Nixon came to light, the rest of the country followed the baby boomers’ advice. We are no longer a blindly trusting public.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

As a result, we’re doing a pretty good job of keeping our politicians on their toes (this is not how Capitol Hill works today). In fact, our general distrust is surely part of the reason why, since 1992, neither political party has managed to amass three national “wins” in a row. In short, it’s fair to say that politicians are held to account more now than they were throughout much of our history.

And while another 10 percentage points would likely help our government dysfunction less, as the NSA data collecting scandal suggests (authorized when last our trust was around 60 points), another thirty points might do all of us more harm than good.