Public Opinion

Trust & Confidence


While often taken for granted, trust is something that is basic to human society; it can make or break relationships and is influential in our actions and decision-making process. H. L. Mencken once stated, “It is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest, that holds human associations together.”  However, trust is something that is diminishing in American society.  In a study by Pew Research Center, sixty-four percent of respondents believed that trust in each other has been diminishing, as well as seventy-five percent for the federal government. This decline in trust also extends to other branches and levels of government as well as various institutions (such as public education). 

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Public Opinion Dashboard

Trust Over Time

International Comparison

Confidence in Institutions



Why the Decline


As shown in the above graph, the majority of citizens feel that there is low trust and confidence in the government and each other - which can get in the way of problem solving. However, when looking at the overall picture, these two issues were ranked low on the scale of "very big" problems. This raises the question of whether this is the case because trust and confidence have remained low for so long that it is considered the norm, or if the other items in this list are truly perceived as having greater importance. In 2019 a survey by Pew found that Americans rated trust and confidence in the federal government as a problem more important than racism, illegal immigration, terrorism, and sexism.

Trust Over Time


Data clearly shows that trust in government at all levels has declined in the 21st century. Research suggests, however, that this decline has been more pronounced at the federal level. In 2019, according to PEW, only 17% of Americans said they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time."

Two seperate studies from Pew and the American National Election Studies (ANES) covering the same time period measure the publics' trust in government. Both studies have very similar patterns and show that overall trust has declined at a steady and dramatic rate since the postwar period.


In the social sciences, researchers use factor analysis to explore the number of possible causes, relevant to the observed data or trend, in order to estimate the most important causes. A simple factor analysis by PEW, below, breaks down the decline in trust by generation, by party affiliation, and by partisan leaning. 

As the graphs below illustrate, the decline in trust is consistent across generations. Although Republicans tend to be more "reactive" to changes in party, trust has declined at similar rates regardless of party affiliation. Similarly, trust has also declined steadily regardless of partisan leaning. It is interesting that these also follow a similar trend to the previous studies, with corresponding spikes during the Reagan administration and 9/11.

International Comparison


Thus far we have looked at trust/confidence in government in the United States, but how does it compare to other countries?  In a study by Dr. John Kincaid and Dr. Richard L. Cole, among other measures, they examined levels of trust and confidence in the federal governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

Confidence in Institutions


Another important aspect of understanding confidence in government is analyzing the difference in confidence levels between the three branches of government . It is interesting that levels of confidence for the Supreme Court and the Presidency have largely remained the same while confidence in Congress has decreased dramatically.

Biggest Threat


Trust in government can also be put in context by comparing it to other entities. In a study by Gallup, participants were asked out of big business, big government, and big labor, which they perceived as being the biggest threat. During the whole study big government was ranked number one.

Why the Decline


Thus far we have looked at levels of trust and confidence in goverment and its decline over time. However, they do not help to provide answers as to why those levels are so low. These next three graphs can help to provide insight and possible answers as to why confidence in government is lacking.

Key Takeaways


1. Trust and confidence in government is one way to measure public opinion and analyze trends overtime. While it is just one aspect of public opinion, it is important to try to understand why trust in government has been declining and where the distrust lies. This dashboard seeks to shed light on trust/confidence regarding the: different levels of government, different branches of government, and how it compares to outside. institutions/entities. Furthermore it examines whether trust is a generational or partisan issue or if it is an overall public trend.

2. In a study conducted by Gallup 67% of Americans perceived "big government" as the biggest threat to American future compared to 35% in 1962. The full study can be accessed here:


3. Similarly, in 2012 ANES found that 64% of respondents thought that quite a few of the people running the government were crooked compared to 24% in 1958. More data regarding trust adn the government can be found in section 5a of The ANES Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior:


4. It is also interesting to look at the variation in levels of trust/confidence between the three branches of government, and the three levels of government. Between the three branches of government, the presidency actually had the highest levels of confidence followed closely by the supreme court. With levels of government, local government had the highest ratings followed by state governments. To learn more about these comparisons we recommend looking at the work by Dr. Kincaid and Dr. Cole found here:


5. Overall trust and confidence in government has been on the decline. Some notable exceptions were during the Reagan administration (1981-1989) and following the events of 9/11 where it actually increased.


6. One helpful measure to examine is how often the public feels that they can trust the government to do the right thing. In 2012 76% felt that the government would do the right thing some of the time while 20% felt it was most of the time.


7. For more insight into confidence in government, we recommend looking into Gallup's

In-Depth: Topics A to Z Government, and Confidence in Institutions found here:


8. While this dashboard examined trust and confidence in government from varying aspects, it did not have as much data pertaining to possible explanations as to why trust is declining. Future research could also be conducted into examining if trust in government is actually a negative thing as Lynn Vavreck discusses in his article, "The Long Decline of Trust in Government, and Why That Can Be Patriotic." New York Times, July 3, 2015.


"Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one"  

-James Madison 

Source: National Gazette, December 1791 



American National Election Studies Trust in Government Index.

PEW, 'Public Trust in Government:1958-2019'.


Kincaid, John and Richard L. Cole, "Citizen Attitudes Toward Issues of Federalism in Canada, Mexico, and the United States." Publius: The Journal of Federalism 41, Issue 1, Winter 2011 (2010): 53-75.


Fishman, Noah and Alyssa Davis. "Americans Still See Big Government as Top Threat" Gallup, January 5, 2017.


Gallup, In-Depth: Topics A to Z, Government.


Gallup, In-Depth: Topics A to Z, Confidence in Institutions.


Recommended ​ 

Samples, John and Emily Elkins. "Public Attitudes toward Federalism: The Public’s Preference for Renewed Federalism." Policy Analysis, no. 759 (2014): 1-40.

For analysis, see PEW Public Trust in Government 1958-2019.

Sheehan, Colleen A. "The Politics of Public Opinion: James Madison's "Notes on Government." The William and Mary Quarterly 49, no. 4 (1992): 609-27. doi:10.2307/2947174.

For research on American views of the ethical integrity of various government officials and/or levels of government, see this Gallup Government report:

Vavreck, Lynn. "The Long Decline of Trust in Government, and Why That Can Be Patriotic." New York Times, July 3, 2015. 


Warren, Scott. "Trust in Big Government? Try Civics Education." The Hill. May 23, 2020. 


CCS Commentary ​


Shifts in public opinion are critical to measure, monitor, and understand. This is true especially in the American system, where public opinion data shows that American confidence and loyalty in their institutions are fundamentally related to how responsibilities are assigned at different levels of government. Trust and Confidence, however, are only one part of the story of the way in which Americans have seemingly lost faith in their governmental institutions. Americans also have strong, clear federalism beliefs when it comes to efficiency and responsiveness.