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Will Americans Ever Trust Their Government Again?


A string of homemade signs lines the highway in front of a small construction business in Rostraver, Pennsylvania. There are 17 in total, and they all reflect the owner’s loss of trust in the government, with their broad array of colorful and sometimes salty phrases. All are directly aimed at the government, not at a particular party.

Last week, a poll released in nearby Ohio showed half of the people who held a favorable opinion of the Republican presidential nominee said they had little to no confidence in the integrity of the upcoming vote count. In short, they expected some rigging or fraud in the vote totals because they did not trust the government to get it right.

And that surge of millennials who rejected Hillary Clinton for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries? That rejection largely stemmed from their association of her with traditional political sources of institutional power: such as her role as first lady, as U.S. senator from New York, and as secretary of State. Their beef with her? Her government resume and coziness with Wall Street—period.

Americans Don’t Trust Government, Regardless of Party

The American public has a big trust problem. It crosses sexes, age groups, races, and political denominations. The latest Pew survey on public sentiments shows that only 3 percent of us trust Washington to do what is right “just about always.” A whopping 16 percent of us trust it “most of the time.”

That mistrust has escalated in the past 16 years. Our volatile electorate has had four wave election cycles, swinging historical majorities back and forth between both parties. That volatility culminated in America coming perilously close to electing its first populist non-ideological president in our history.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1958, when the American National Election Study first asked Americans to gauge their trust in government, a healthy 73 percent said they could trust the government just about always or most of the time. The slide began under Lyndon Baines Johnson, hit a brief peak during the Ronald Reagan years, and has been falling ever since.

Simply put, we are in the Era of Mistrust, and there are no exit signs.

How Did We Get Here?

There’s no arguing with the reality that major calamities like Vietnam and Watergate eroded public trust in the honesty and competence of government. As Naval War College professor Tom Nichols notes, “Although it’s common to think that trust in government eroded because Vietnam was sold to them as a temporary measure that turned into a huge war, the reality is that Vietnam also hurt trust in government because it was the first time Americans saw their military defeated overseas.”

Likewise, Watergate wasn’t just about Richard Nixon hiding his own mistakes; it was the shock of finding out how implicated the rest of the government—including the CIA and the FBI—was in the whole mess.

From 1964 to 1979, loss of trust in government began to become part of our culture. In those 15 years, trust fell from 77 percent at the beginning of LBJ’s term to 36 percent in 1979. In between, the country struggled with the Vietnam War, civil unrest, the Watergate scandal, the energy crisis, the collapse of the steel industry, and the Iran hostage crisis.

Reagan was the first candidate to run against government itself, but he was not a Tea Partier or a populist in that sense, said Nichols: “He believed that the federal government should only do a very few things, like national defense, and it should do them well. This was in line with a traditional conservative view that went back to the Founders themselves.” People who think Reagan was “anti-government” have never understood Reaganism.

Our Mistrust Isn’t Just About Corruption

Still, none of that explains why trust in government is low among people who have no memory of the 1960s or 1970s. Nichols believes something else is at work: namely, “our modern culture of ignorance and entitlement.”

If you look closely, you’ll find that trust in government has also eroded because people expect the government to do things that are flatly impossible—like insulate America from global economic competition or guarantee 100 percent safety from terrorists.

“These are things that simply can’t be done; It’s like demanding that the government reverse the laws of gravity,” said Nichols.

But to get elected, politicians desperately promise to do all these things anyway. When they fail, people think it’s a failure of government—not the inevitable result of their own unrealistic demands.

The political class bears some responsibility here, but it’s hard to blame them for not speaking truth to voters who don’t want to hear it. Voters, marinated in television and talk radio, are often immune to facts and numbers.

“Telling voters that they’re not nearly as in danger from terrorism as they are from texting and driving is a good way to lose an election,” said Nichols. Tell them that global trade benefits them more than it harms them, and they’ll chase you from the room.

“What politician is going to commit suicide with an electorate that has no idea what’s real and what’s myth, and will punish anyone who tells them they’re wrong?” Nichols asks. The answer is none.

How to Restore People’s Faith In Political Institutions

Regaining the public’s trust is something that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told The Federalist is integral to what he’s proposing right now as part of his government reforms under the Better GOP banner.

“One of the main reasons why we have trended towards this distrust, which has led to populism, is because we are at the end of a big, long progressive experiment that is trying to consolidate power in Washington DC,” he said, referencing an era that began with big-government programs from the Great Society and stretched into the era of Obamacare.

“The government has grown to be much more unaccountable and unresponsive and therefore people lose faith,” he said.

The media needs to take some of the blame for the public’s sentiments, says Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University.

“With a massive 24-hour news and opinion system that loudly broadcasts everything politicos want to yodel about, media figures are spreading the ‘government sucks’ message as well,” she said.

Talk radio hosts, cable news pundits, bloggers, op-ed writers are all banging the drum that the government is inexplicably broken and needs to be either fixed or destroyed entirely—which makes you wonder why these people want to work in the government so badly, she noted.

The Media Needs to Take Responsibility

Another problem with the media is that every single bad thing a politician does is not only exposed to the public (which is appropriate), but also repeated, rehashed, and rebroadcast on an endless loop to affirm the existing narrative that politicians are bums.

“This helps to congeal the existing slur that our elected officials are awful,” she said. “But they’re not awful, and they do good things when they’re not busy trying to prove how crappy the government is.”

So the idea that the government is not to be trusted is very familiar to the American public. After 50 years of yelling about how crappy the government is, people will tend to believe you.

Nichols argues that we haven’t lost trust in government, we’ve lost trust in ourselves. “We no longer have the confidence that we can produce people who can govern virtuously or competently—and that, on the part of many voters, is projection,” he said.

A couple of months ago, Dagnes gave a talk at the local Rotary Club. Someone asked her, “How can we encourage young people to get involved in public service?”

Her answer? “Stop telling them that the government is repugnant and full of crooks. That’s a start.”