Polling from the Pew Research Center shows that trust in the federal government fell during final two years of the Bush Administration and the first term of the Obama Administration. The poll found that trust in government is at a low, with only 26% of respondents saying that they could trust the government always or most of the time, while 73% say they can trust the government only some of the time or never.
However the headline number of a poll never expresses the nuance of the information contained within. While there are those who say that such a number is indicative of the American public having a natural distrust of the government, further analysis of historical trends in the poll shows that public trust in the government has fallen and risen in conjunction with current events more so then any underlying ideological trend in America.
Pew Research Center
The Pew Research Center’s Report included an interactive tracker of trust in government compared to several other factors. Combined with a bit of historical knowledge, this allows us to take a broader look.
A broad look at trust in the government shows several inflection points that saw trust in the government fall. One of the first and most notable points is during the Johnson administration. The Johnson administration saw several controversial policies enacted. Two of the most notable are the Great Society programs; this included the Civil Rights Act, which was incredibly controversial when passed. Johnson himself said that the Democratic Party had "lost the South for a generation" to an aide after signing the act. The second was Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. Although the conflict had a 48% approval rating in 1965, by 1967 52% of Americans disapproved of the handling of the war. The 1968 Tet Offensive did much to further damage the credibility of the government, with a Gallup poll having 53% of respondents say it was a mistake to send troops to Vietnam. These two events saw trust in the government falling to 65%, a low since the Eisenhower administration.
Similar collapses in government trust extended to other administrations and even actions of Congress. The backlash from the Watergate Scandal during the Nixon administration can be clearly seen in 1973, leading to enormous 17 point drop in trust in government as the image of the executive branch was shattered by Nixon’s resignation. And the effects of the 1995 government shutdown by the New Gingrich-led Republican party during the Clinton administration can be clearly seen in the polling data.
Probably most intriguing is that while there has been a decline in trust in the government since the Johnson administration, several very different time periods saw trust in the federal government actually rise. The first is the Reagan administration, which saw a rise in the trust in government despite scandals such as Iran-Contra affair. Proving that not only conservatives can restore trust in government, the Clinton administration also saw rising levels of trust in government. Despite setbacks such as the 1995 government shutdown and attempted impeachment, the end of the Clinton administration saw an all time high in the trust in government reached for the decade, reaching 42% in July of 2000. The George W Bush administration would see highs in trust (60%) not seen since the 1960s in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, although these would quickly dissipate due to controversial actions such as the Iraq War and the handling of Hurricane Katrina.
A look at the trends in the trust in government suggests that the trend could change in as little as four years. A look at the other questions in the Pew Research poll indicates that American voters in the left, right, and center show that in branches such as Congress, nearly 56% of Americans think the political system is fine and that the problem comes down to individual members of Congress. This figure holds up among across Republicans (58%), Democrats (57%), and Independents (56%). This shows that while trust in the current government is at a historic low, American faith in the system of governance remains. Additionally President Obama has an approval rating of 49%, showing that distrust in government is not manifesting in condemnation of the executive as in previous events. Trust in the government could rebound as it has in several historical situations with bold action or other circumstances such as strong economic growth. The only question remains is that will Washington or fate do anything to regain the public’s trust.