How do Americans view government? Survey finds both distrust and hope

A new Pew survey finds that, while Americans are critical and distrustful of government in general, members of both parties say it is doing well at addressing some national issues.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Uniformed US Secret Service officers keep watch outside the White House in Washington, November 17. Public trust of the US government has fallen to 19 percent, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Monday.

The American public is generally as distrustful and dissatisfied with the federal government as ever. But the tone changes when asked about specific problems.

The majority of Americans say the government has an important role to play in solving specific issues and, in some cases, even says the government is doing a good job, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.

The survey, based on over 6,000 interviews conducted between Aug. 27 and Oct. 4, finds that public attitude towards the government is far more ambiguous than the narrative of the political "year of the outsider" – the theory that a growing dissatisfaction with the political establishment has propelled outsiders like Donald Trump and Ben Carson to the lead in the 2016 presidential campaign – would suggest.

The American public is broadly distrustful of the federal government and critical of its performance on many issues, the Pew survey found. However, a majority of Americans also say the government should play a role in solving major problems from terrorism and disaster response to education and the environment. And while partisan divides remain over the scale of what government involvement should be, both Republicans and Democrats surveyed said the government should have some role in all the issues posed in the survey.

Only 19 percent of Americans say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels of the past half-century, according to Pew.

The 2011 debt ceiling fight also saw public trust of government drop to its current level of 19 percent. In 1958, the American National Election Study found that 73 percent of Americans said they always or mostly trusted the government to do what is right, Pew reported.

Respondents today are more critical of the government in a general sense. Only 20 percent of those surveyed say the federal government runs its programs well, and 59 percent say the government needs "very major reform," an increase of 22 percentage points since 1997.

Yet when it came to the government’s handling of specific issues, responses were more mixed. They survey polled respondents on 13 issues – including disaster response, terrorism, ensuring access to health care, maintaining infrastructure, and advancing the economy – and in 10 of the 13 areas public opinion was more positive than negative.

When it comes to responding to natural disasters, for example, 82 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats say the government does a good job. Republicans also say the government was doing a better job protecting the environment than Democrats, though a majority from both parties said the government was doing a good job (62 percent and 58 percent respectively). Republicans and Democrats also agreed that the government does a poor job helping people out of poverty, with 42 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of Republicans, saying the government is doing well on the issue.

On two issues that are likely to be central to the 2016 election, however, there were substantial partisan divides in the survey. For strengthening the economy, 34 percent of Republicans say the government does a good job, compared to 68 percent of Democrats. The gap is even larger when it comes to ensuring access to health care, with 40 percent of Republicans saying the government is doing well compared to 74 percent of Democrats.

The survey results also cast some doubt on the theory that Republicans are currently "angrier" at the federal government than previously. Of all respondents, 22 percent say they are "angry" at the government, while 57 percent are "frustrated" and 18 percent are "basically content." The public was angrier at the government two years ago during the government shutdown, when 30 percent of the public was angry at the government.

Predictably, more Republicans are angry with the government than Democrats (32 percent and 12 percent, respectively), but Republicans have had a historically low level of trust in the government during Barack Obama’s presidency. In his six years in the White House, 13 percent of Republicans, on average, have said they can trust the government always or most of the time – the lowest level of average trust among either party during any administration in the past 40 years.

Both sides of the political system also view their side as "losing," the survey found, though Republicans feel more defeated than Democrats. 

On the issues that matter to them, 64 percent of Americans say their side loses more often than it wins, with just 25 percent saying their side wins more often. Amongst the American right, 81 percent of conservative Republicans and 75 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans say their side loses more often than it wins. For the left, 52 percent of Democrats say their side loses more often than it wins, with 40 percent saying it usually wins.

[Editor's noteThis article has been updated to clarify that the survey was conducted by Pew Research Center, a subsidiary of Pew Charitable Trust.]

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