Putnam: The Perfect (Temporary) Storm in Declining Trust

(Flickr photo Kalieye)

Robert Putnam appeared on Talk of the Nation yesterday concerning the recent Pew Research Center surveys on Trust in Government showing that trust in government is at a several decade low.

Putnam noted that  surveys of trust in local or national government mainly flow from macro assessments of how well things are going in society and whether government is honest and trustworthy, not personal experiences with bureaucracy.

Putnam observed that record high levels of trust in government post WW-II “stemmed from the success of the U.S. government in…getting out of the Great Depression and winning the War….It didn’t mean that they were necessarily happy or unhappy when they…filled out their IRS form…. That high level of trust collapsed first …  around the time of intervention in Vietnam and then another big drop when Watergate was revealed….”

Putnam noted the strong connections between the condition of the economy and trust. Pew’s work and others shows rising trust in the 1980s and much of the 1990s. Given that the economy is now in the worst shape it has been since the Great Depression, Putnam  thinks “it’s not at all surprising that people are expressing very low levels of trust in government…Americans have always been a little skeptical about government. We historically have had a much smaller – and still do today – a much smaller government than most other countries at our stage in rate of development and so on. So it is true that Americans are a little more skeptical than most people in the world about government.”

While Putnam comments that it is hard for any government to overcome recession, mount a new health insurance effort, if the government succeeds, which he is fairly confident it will, the part in power will get credit for that.  “So I am not one of those who thinks that … we’ve entered some kind of dark hole in …which we spiral ever downward to lower trust in the government. I think we are in the midst of a perfect storm, but even perfect storms pass.”

Putnam’s takeaway from the Pew survey:

I think that the survey shows how big the hole is we’re in at the moment. And I do think that this level of distrust in government is a problem for all of us, actually. It’s a problem actually for even those of us who are, regardless of our political views, because we need government to get some basic things done, and it’s harder to get things done … when many of us don’t trust it.

[It’s also]… harder to motivate good workers….I’m not basically deeply pessimistic. I think that this is basically a decent country and that when government starts doing things demonstrably – I don’t mean just passing bills, I mean things start improving, the economy, people’s health care and so on, the government will get credit for it. And so I think this – at the moment, we’re in a particularly unpleasant downward vicious circle, but I think we can turn that around, and I think it’ll be good for the country if we do.

On partisanship: The increased partisanship “… is a serious problem. I think that’s a somewhat unrelated issue, but it is no doubt that…the degree of partisanship has changed enormously, even just over the last 10 or 15 years, and I think that’s bad for the country.”

On variation of trust from place to place: Depending on how good (non-corrupt, efficient) the local government is, in some places residents trust the local government more than the national government.  “Blacks, especially in the South before the civil rights movement, …had extremely low levels of trust in local government and extremely high levels of trust, extremely high levels of trust in the national government. That was not kind of something that was just in their minds, and it didn’t have anything to do with the particular actions about how they were treated at the post office. It had to do with the fact that local government was more racist, and the national government was less racist.”

Hear NPR Talk of the Nation story “What’s It Like to be a Government Worker” (4/19/10)


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