Public trust In government hits new lows

In 1972, most Americans said that they trusted government always or most of the time, but the Watergate scandal drove trust in government down to 36 percent. Now, 40 years after Watergate, it's at 13 percent.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
This June 9, 2014, file photo shows the US Capitol building as seen from the Cannon House Office Building in Washington. Just 13% of Americans say the government can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time, according to a new CNN poll.

A new poll shows that public trust is government at all levels it at its lowest point ever:

Just 13% of Americans say the government can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time, with just over three-quarters saying only some of the time and one in 10 saying they never trust the government, according to the poll.

“The number who trust the government all or most of the time has sunk so low that it is hard to remember that there was ever a time when Americans routinely trusted the government,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said.

“But polls conducted by the University of Michigan consistently found a majority of Americans in the 1960s and early 1970s saying that the government could be trusted all or most of the time – until Watergate. In 1972, 53% said they trusted the government always or most of the time. By 1974, that figure had plummeted to 36%, and except for a brief period of patriotic sentiment immediately after the 9/11 attacks, it has remained under 50% ever since,” Holland added.

The survey indicates that skepticism doesn’t stop at the White House and Capitol Hill: Only 17% of Americans believe that big business can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time.

The poll was prompted by the 40th Anniversary of the Watergate scandal, which culminates tomorrow with the anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation in the face of what would have been his absolutely certain impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate. That is appropriate, of course, since it is largely around the time of the Watergate scandal that Americans were finally stripped of the rose-colored glasses that they used to view their country and its government through. While there have been times since then when public confidence in government institutions has been far higher than it is today, such as during the Reagan and, to some extent, the Clinton years, as well as in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, for the most part the American public has become far more cynical about politics and government over the past 40 years, thanks in no small part to the fact that Watergate revealed things about the government that had never been made public before. Since then, of course, we have learned that there have been other eras in American history when government was not exactly operating in the most ethical manner possible, and in the years that have followed everything from Iran/Contra to the scandals of the Clinton Era to the Iraq War have seemingly occurred on a regular basis as if to confirm that what we learned in Watergate remains as true now as it was then.

On some level, this kind of public skepticism about government is a good thing. It is better that we live in a world where Americans are skeptical about the claims that their political leaders make rather than one where people blindly accept what politicians, journalists, and pundits tell them. We’re better off being a nation of Cassandras than a nation of Pollyanna’s. More importantly, people ought to be thinking for themselves rather than letting others do their thinking for them, and they ought to recognize that government is as much a potential source of bad as it is a source of good, and arguably falls more on the bad end of the spectrum. To the extent that public distrust of government is reflective of these attitudes, it is a good thing and can be a positive force in helping to restrain politicians from overreaching.

Of course, there’s also a bad side to this distrust in government. For some people, of course, this cynicism has become so deeply ingrained that they’ve essentially tuned politics out of their lives. That’s dangerous because it essentially cedes the ground to the ideologues and those who use government to advance their financial interests. To some extent, that’s the situation we find ourselves in today, with many people that fall in the middle of the political spectrum expressing essentially equal frustration with the partisans of the left and the right and basically throwing their hands in the air in frustration and walking away rather than trying to get involved in a political process that has become increasingly frustrating for people who don’t really care whether the left or the right “wins” a particular argument. Because of that, we have a situation where little gets done because both sides use the political process to advance partisan interests rather than accomplishing anything of substance. Clearly, things can’t go on like this forever. At some point, the American people will have to take back control of their political system and bring an end to the partisanship that has caused it to grind to a halt. However, given the extent to which contemporary politics only serves to reinforce the attitudes that this poll reflects, and the fact that such attitudes make it less likely that people will get involved in politics, I am not sure if there is actually any hope of this happening any time soon.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at

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