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Trust and Confidence

Shifts in public opinion are critical to measure, monitor, and understand. This is true especially in the American federal system, where public opinion data shows that American confidence and loyalty in their institutions is fundamentally related to how responsibilities are assigned at or to different levels of government.


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Federalism, Trust and Confidence: An Introduction

Today there are relatively few empirical studies of the relationship between federalism and public opinion (Kincaid & Cole 2011). The following dashboard is designed to provide readers with an introductory overview of the ways in which one particular measure - trust in government  - has changed in recent years. The following datasets also provide valuable insight in to the ways in which American trust in the Federal Government have changed at different rates than their trust in state and local governments. 

Declining Trust in Federal and State Government

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." As these two studies by PEW and by ANES demonstrate below, trust in the federal government has declined at a steady and dramatic rate since the postwar period. 

The graph on the above graph to the left represents an aggregate score (an "index") using data from American National Election Studies Index, from 1958-2016. Respondents were asked the following questions:

  • "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right-- just about always, most of the time or only some of the time?"

  • "Would you say the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people?"

  • "Do you think that people in the government waste a lot of money we pay in taxes, waste some of it, or don't waste very much of it?"

  • "Do you think that quite a few of the people running the government are (1958-1972: a little) crooked, not very many are, or do you think hardly any of them are crooked (1958-1972: at all)?"

For notes on how the index (below) was constructed, see ANES Trust in Government Index 1958-2016 Notes.

Trust by Generation and Party

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 cards 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.

Federalism and Trust

Analysts are divided on the causes of these dramatic declines in trust. It may be, simply, that trust declines as transparency goes up, over time. The more people see the "sausage being made" the more they are likely to become cynical about major political institutions. Another possibility is that the American public is simply more skeptical of centralization. American political culture is unique, in part, because of a long history that dates back to a revolution against the perceived tyranny of a centralized and un-representative monarchy.


A significant body of research shows that Americans do indeed have an "intuitive federalism." Because of its unique political and Constitutional history, U.S. citizens tend to assign different expectations for different levels of government.

Putting aside the larger philosophical question, recent empirical work by notable federalism expert John Kincaid shows that American trust in federal government does seem to have dropped at faster rates than other levels of government:

Cross Country Comparisons

While these figures do suggest that American attitudes toward government are more positive at the state and local level (even while overall trust is declining across all levels), it is unclear why. It is also not clear what effect the Coronavirus crisis will have on American views of confidence or trust across different levels of government.

In the meantime, it can be useful to ask whether the decline in trust at the national or federal level in the United States is unique to the United States. Federalism scholars John Kincaid and Richard L. Cole provide a short series of cross-country comparisons that provide an intriguing glimpse. In a study from 2002-2009 comparing Canada, Mexico, and the United States, the authors asked respondents a series of core questions relating to attitudes toward federalism, including "is your province/state treated with deserved respect?" The researchers also asked whether constituents trusted their federal / local / state governments to do "a good job carrying out its responsibilities."

As below, the authors find that Americans generally reported higher levels of trust and confidence in government as a whole, but lower (or declining) levels of trust at the federal level. According to the authors, "Respondents in Canada and in the United States...consistently expressed the least trust in their federal government and the most trust in their local governments." Of special note, the authors also observed that "respondents in all countries in all years believed their federal government has too much power, generally by large margins."

Long Term Trends

What might explain the divergences across countries in North America? In short term studies that range across only a few election cycles, it is important to be cautious in drawing conclusions. Attitudes toward different levels of government are sensitive to party, to leadership, to economic factors, current events, and so on. More research would be needed to analyze cause and effect. And more research would be needed to compare how opinion has changed during the Trump presidency and as a result of the dramatic events of the Coronavirus crisis.  


Turning back to long term trends, these recent studies do appear to support longer term observable trends in American opinion as it relates to the size of government. In simple terms, long range polling demonstrates a significant increase in concern over the size of the federal government and its potential for abuse(s) of power. The connection between size or centralization and trust is especially important in our view. Generally speaking, American trust in government tends to decline as  power at the federal level increases. Why?


Historically, Americans have generally associated high levels of centralization with tyranny and bad government.  In theory, at least, state and local government have been viewed as more trustworthy, since state and local governments are closer to the people, to whom they are accountable. A famous example of this view is found in the Federalist Papers. Hamilton - one of the most vocal proponents for "energetic" government at the founding - nonetheless was wary of placing too much power in the hands of a distant federal government: "Not to confer in each case a degree of power commensurate to the end would be to violate the most obvious rules of prudence and propriety, and improvidently to trust the great interests of the nation to hands which are disabled from managing them with vigor and success." 

Not all readers will be persuaded by Hamilton's warning of over-centralization. Yet, recent public opinion data does appear to show that most Americans still believe Hamilton's basic premise to be essentially true. Indeed, public opinion research, presented below, does appear to show that Americans have become more (instead of less) sensitive to the potential threats of centralization. 

The Bigger Threat

To take one example, Gallup has been tracking opinion on "Big Government" since at least 1965. Over nearly five decades, Gallup has been asking the question, "What is the biggest threat to the United States in the future"?

In 1965, 35% of Americans replied that "Big Government" might become the biggest threat to the country, at least as compared to Big Business or Big Labor. In 2013, Gallup found that over 70% - nearly double that number - say that "Big Government" was a bigger threat than Big Business or Big Labor:


As always, there are different ways of interpreting the data. There may be multiple reasons for the rising antipathy toward "Big Government." As Gallup noted in their study, there are also statistically significant differences between parties. Americans are not monolithic in their attitudes toward Big Government.    Yet, as the authors themselves admit, the difference between parties is not large. Republicans, Independents, and Democrats, according to Gallup, are all increasingly inclined to view Big Government as a threat, and more so than at any time in the history of Gallup polling.


Why do Americans view Big Government (or hyper centralization) as a threat? On this question, we turn to the American National Election Survey for insight. As below, a significant factor in this evolving story may be related to American views of human nature - as opposed to some abstract theoretical objection to centralization. Indeed, more Americans now, perhaps than at any point in US history, think that quite a few people running the government are either crooked, not capable of doing the right thing, or run by a few big interests, looking out for themselves:

Separation of Powers

Trust and confidence is a federalism issue. But it may also be a separation of powers problem. If it is true that Americans distrust government now more than ever, and if it is true that Americans have an instinctively bleak view of leadership at the federal level, are there any differences in attitudes between branches of government? Or to put it another way, is the pessimism constant across federal institutions?


As the below research from Gallup shows, American public opinion is most critical of Congress. At least from a Trust perspective, polls indicate that Americans are dramatically more concerned about the performance of the Legislative Branch, as compared to the Supreme Court and the Presidency. In 2002, only 16% of Americans said they had "Very Little" trust in Congress. In 2019, that number had risen to 48%:



In 1958, roughly 3/4 of the American public trusted the government to do "the right thing most or all of the time." In contrast, since 2007, less than 1/3 of the population maintains that opinion. 


Public trust in the Federal Government saw a marked decline in the decades coinciding with the Vietnam War and Watergate Scandal. 1984-1991 saw a brief resurgence in public trust followed by diminishing levels until 2001, where American trust briefly peaked following the events of 9-11. Since 2001, trust has declined at a steady rate. 


In 2013, a record high number of Americans perceived "Big Government" as the biggest threat to the country in the future.


American trust in the federal government dipped to historical low levels across generational lines in 2019. 


An established trend occurs when one political party has a sitting President in office, members of that party tend to exhibit a higher level of trust in the federal government as compared to the opposing party. However, since 2008, trust in the government has not reached above 40% across all political parties. 



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. We recommend readers to take a look at our Effectiveness and Responsiveness Dashboard, found here.

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

-James Madison

Source: National Gazette, December 1791

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