What Explains The Rise In Public Distrust In Government Institutions?
Far from being an existential crisis, the recent rise in public distrust in government is easily explained.
Jim Geraghty argues that the past 15 years or so have seen a dramatic decline in Americans faith in government institutions:
Think back to about fourteen or fifteen years ago, and everything you thought you knew at that moment.
You knew no president would be so reckless that he would get caught having sex with an intern in the Oval Office.
You may have worried about your kid’s safety at school, but you knew two alienated teenagers couldn’t turn their rage into a massacre.
You “knew” that the winner of the presidential election was the candidate who got the most votes.
You knew absentee ballots get counted, whether or not the race was close or not. You knew a vote was a vote, and “dimpled chad” was the kid in your child’s kindergarten class photo.
When you looked out at the New York City skyline, you knew it would look the same the next day.
You knew that recessions usually ended within a year; they didn’t drag on, with high unemployment, year after year after year…
You figured you could pick up your copy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News, or the Christian Science Monitor every day until you died and never see those events in the headlines. It was about as likely as a federally-funded community group offering assistance to child prostitution rings.
The past fifteen years have been one rude awakening after another, where one unspoken assumption after another kept getting smacked around by a bipolar furious reality.
Noah-Kristula Green agrees with Geraghty, but notes that it isn’t entirely true that public faith in government has been on a consistent decline:
The American National Election Studies (ANES) measures how much Americans trust the government and has a “Trust in Government Index” which weighs the answers they get from their survey questions such as (paraphrasing) ” How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?” or “Do you think that quite a few of the people running the government are crooked?”
Here’s a chart showing the ANES index from the 1958 to the present:
While it’s true that the general trend in the index has been downward over the past 53 years, there have been several times when it peaked, indicating that trust in government was on the rise. It happened in the early 60s, the mid-80s, and the late-90s to early 2000s. The valley’s have been in the late 60s to early 70s, the early 90s, and now. It shouldn’t take too much thought to figure out what these time periods all tend to have in common. For the most part the periods during which the public faith in government was on the upswing coincided with times of a booming economy and a President who is genuinely popular. The declines coincide with times of economic decline, unpopular wars, and unpopular Presidents.
None of this should be surprising, but it does sort of put the lie to Geraghty’s assumption that we’re in some kind of cycle of decline that began 15 years ago. For one thing, many of the factors he cites as contributing to this decline, such as the Lewinsky scandal, occurred while confidence in government was on the upswing, and there no indication that they had any real impact on trust in government. The things that have include events like Watergate, the Vietnam war, the Iraq War, and a bad economy.
What this suggests is that the current downturn in public confidence in government has more to do with the state of the nation and the world than it does with some existential crisis of democracy. Of course, given the fact that we’re currently in a situation where slow economic growth and high unemployment are likely to be the norm for at least the next three or four years, which means that this is going to be something far more similar to the period after Watergate than the momentary blip in the early 1990s. Politically, I’d suggest that this means we’re in for many more years of the kind of polarization and anger that people have spent so much time complaining about over the past year or so.