Few trust the government, poll finds

In previous times of similar mistrust, Ronald Reagan was elected president and the GOP took control of the House.

April 19, 2010|By Mark Silva

Reporting from Washington — Only 22% of all Americans surveyed said they trusted the government in Washington almost always or most of the time -- among the lowest measures in half a century -- according to a Pew Research Center survey released Sunday night.

The results point to "a perfect storm" of public unrest, Pew reports, "a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter, partisan-based backlash and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials."

Growing numbers of people want government's power curtailed, Pew reports of a March and April survey that found "less of an appetite for government solutions to the nation's problems -- including more government control over the economy -- than there was when Barack Obama first took office."

"The public's hostility toward government seems likely to be an important election issue favoring the Republicans this fall," Pew said. "However, the Democrats can take some solace in the fact that neither party can be confident that they have the advantage among such a disillusioned electorate. Favorable ratings for both major parties, as well as for Congress, have reached record lows while opposition to congressional incumbents, already approaching an all-time high, continues to climb."

There have been political ramifications in the past when the public mood grew this sour: In 1980, Ronald Reagan unseated President Carter. In 1994, the GOP won control of the House.

The current level of public skepticism was matched previously only in the periods leading up to both events -- from 1992 to 1995 (reaching a low of 17% trusting in government in the summer of 1994) and from 1978 to 1980 (bottoming out at 25% in 1980).

When the National Election Study first asked the question in 1958, 73% of Americans said they trusted the government to do what was right most of the time.

"The current survey and previous research have found that there is no single factor that drives general public distrust in government," Pew reports. "Instead, there are several factors -- and all are currently present. First, there is considerable evidence that distrust of government is strongly connected to how people feel about the overall state of the nation. Distrust of government soars when the public is unhappy with the way things are going in the country."

The downward trend began in fall 2008 amid the financial crisis, Pew says.

Government isn't the only institution mistrusted.

About 25% of those surveyed said the federal government had a positive effect on the state of the nation; 25% said this about large corporations. Only 22% said banks had a positive effect, and 31% said the same about the news media.

Interest in government regulation has declined, with one exception, Pew says: "A clear majority [61%] says it is a good idea for the government to more strictly regulate the way major financial companies do business, which is virtually unchanged from last April [60%]."

The poll was based on four surveys done from March 11 to April 11 on landline and cellphones. The largest survey, of 2,500 adults, has a margin of sampling error of 2.5 percentage points; the others, of about 1,000 adults each, have a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points.

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