Public Opinion

Trust & Confidence

Introduction

While often taken for granted, trust is a basic fundamental to human society; it can make or break relationships and is often considered by researchers to be a key ingredient in a functional and healthy federal system. 

 

Yet, trust in government appears to be declining in American society. In a study by Pew Research Center, sixty-four percent of respondents reported that trust in each other (neighbors, fellow citizens, etc.) has been diminishing. Seventy-five percent of respondents felt that the general American's trust in the federal government was declining. As the following dashboard shows, this decline in trust also extends to other branches and levels of government as well as various institutions (i.e. public education). 

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Public Opinion Dashboard

Trust Over Time

Trust and Partisanship

International Comparison

Confidence in Institutions

Biggest

Threat

Why the Decline

Summary

As shown above, 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 solving key issues in American society. The following data from a 2019 Pew study helps place the issue of trust in context. Researchers asked respondents to rate major societal issues in terms of whether that issue counts as a "very big" problem. Less than half, or 41% of respondents, said that confidence in the federal government was a "big problem." Yet, the confidence issue still ranked relatively high, even against other topics that are clearly important to Americans' list of concerns, including: racism, illegal immigration, the quality of public schools, terrorism, sexism, and job opportunities. 

Trust Over Time

 
Pew / ANES (1958-2019)

 

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 separate studies from Pew and the American National Election Studies (ANES) cover the same time period and measure the publics' trust in government. Both studies (shown below for comparison) demonstrate nearly identical patterns; in both datasets, overall trust has declined at a steady and dramatic rate since the postwar period (1945-present).

Trust and Partisanship

Pew (1958-2019)

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 of a given study. A simple factor analysis by PEW,  in the two storyboards below, breaks down the decline in trust by generation, by party affiliation, and by partisan leaning. Click on the gray tabs to view data by party affiliation and partisan leaning.


As shown below, the decline in trust is surprisingly 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 results also follow a similar trend to the previous studies, with corresponding spikes during the Reagan administration and 9/11.

 

International Comparison

 
United States, Canada, Mexico (2002 / 2004 / 2007 / 2009) 

Thus far we have looked at trust/confidence in government in the United States, but how do levels of confidence in government compare across countries?  In 2010, federalism scholars Dr. John Kincaid and Dr. Richard L. Cole published a groundbreaking comparative analysis of "Citizen Attitudes Toward Issues of Federalism in Canada, Mexico, and the United States." Using surveys conducted from 2002 to 2009, Kincaid and Cole identified a number of key similarities and differences between public attitudes toward federalism.

 

The data below represents one sample of how analysts have used comparative research to help us think about: the importance of public trust in federal systems, how citizen attitudes have changed over time, and the unique cultural and societal conditions that play a role in the maintenance of different federal systems. The authors find that Americans and Canadians expressed they felt the least amount of trust in their federal government and the most trust in their local governments. Respondents in all three federations agreed that "their federal government has too much power."

For reference, and for critical analysis, we strongly recommend reading the whole article, which can be found here: https://academic.oup.com/publius/article/41/1/53/1888809?searchresult=1

Confidence in Institutions

 
Gallup (1973-2019)

How else might the low levels of trust in American institutions be explained? The following data from Gallup (1973-2019) breaks down confidence/trust across the three branches of government over time.  Respondents were asked how much confidence they had in the following institutions (the Presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court) ranging from a "great deal" to "very little".

 

This first graph only highlights the percent of respondents who had selected a "great deal," while the second graph provides a full breakdown showing all responses for each branch of government. Click on the slider at the top of the graph to switch between branches.  As shown below, levels of confidence for the Supreme Court and the presidency have largely remained the same while confidence in Congress has decreased dramatically.

Biggest Threat

 
Gallup (1965-2016)

Trust in government can also be put in context by comparing it to other entities. In a study by Gallup, participants were asked whether they viewed "big business, big government, of big labor" as the "Biggest Threat to U.S. Future." Negative views toward "big business" have remained fairly low, and stable across 50 years of data. Fears of "big labor" have decreased radically since 1965. Fears of "big government" have risen steadily throughout the decades, from a low of 33% in 1969 to a high of 72% in 2013: 

Why the Decline?

 
ANES (1964-2016)

Thus far we have looked at levels of trust and confidence in government and its decline over time. However, they do not help 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. 

The first examines whether citizens believe that the government is acting with the best interest of the general populace in mind - or if they are swayed more by self-serving interest groups. The second is designed to measure more broad sentiment towards the federal government by asking respondents if the federal government can be trusted to do what is right. The third almost serves as a counterbalance to the previous question by examining how many people in government positions citizens feel are "crooked." Taken together, these three graphs can offer a sense of how moral American citizens feel the government is.

Key Takeaways

Highlights

1. Trust and confidence in government is one way to measure public opinion and analyze trends over time. 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: 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 America's future compared to 35% in 1962. The full study can be accessed here: https://news.gallup.com/poll/201629/americans-big-government-top-threat.aspx

 

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 and the government can be found in section 5a of The ANES Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior: https://electionstudies.org/resources/anes-guide/

 

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 governments 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: https://academic.oup.com/publius/article-abstract/41/1/53/1888809?redirectedFrom=fulltext

 

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 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: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx and 

https://news.gallup.com/poll/27286/government.aspx

 

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 to 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. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/04/upshot/the-long-decline-of-trust-in-government-and-why-that-can-be-patriotic.html

 

 
Sources

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American National Election Studies Trust in Government Index.  https://electionstudies.org/resources/anes-guide/.

Fishman, Noah and Alyssa Davis. "Americans Still See Big Government as Top Threat" Gallup, January 5, 2017.  https://news.gallup.com/poll/201629/americans-big-government-top-threat.aspx.

 

Gallup, In-Depth: Topics A to Z, Government. https://news.gallup.com/poll/27286/government.aspx.

Gallup, In-Depth: Topics A to Z, Confidence in Institutions. https://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx.

 

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.  https://academic.oup.com/publius/article/41/1/53/1888809.

PEW, 'Public Trust in Government:1958-2019'. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/04/11/public-trust-in-government-1958-2019/.

Recommended ​ 

For research on American views of the ethical integrity of various government officials and/or levels of government, see this Gallup Government report: https://news.gallup.com/poll/27286/government.aspx

For analysis, see PEW Public Trust in Government 1958-2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/04/11/public-trust-in-government-1958-2019/.

Samples, John and Emily Elkins. "Public Attitudes toward Federalism: The Public’s Preference for Renewed Federalism." Policy Analysis, no. 759 (2014): 1-40.  https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2509496.

Schildkraut, Deborah J., Jeffrey M. Berry, and James M. Glaser. 2020. “Public Opinion about Federalism during the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Data for Progress. May 4, 2020. https://www.dataforprogress.org/blog/5/4/public-opinion-federalism.

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. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2947174?seq=1

Vavreck, Lynn. "The Long Decline of Trust in Government, and Why That Can Be Patriotic." New York Times, July 3, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/04/upshot/the-long-decline-of-trust-in-government-and-why-that-can-be-patriotic.html 

 

Warren, Scott. "Trust in Big Government? Try Civics Education." The Hill. May 23, 2020. https://thehill.com/opinion/education/499295-trust-in-big-government-try-civics-education 

 

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.