Tag Archives: trust government

Trust/Approval of federal government hits all-time low

Flickr photo by reskiebak

Approval ratings for Congress dropped into single digits this month for the first time since CBS News and the New York Times began asking the question more than three decades ago.

A New York Times/CBS poll conducted between October 21-24, 2011 showed just 9% percent of US respondents approving of the job of Congressional lawmakers. [The question read “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?’] This is a drop from 11% back in September and the first time approval ratings have been in single digits over the almost three and half decades that the question has been asked (since 1977). [84% in the recent October poll said they did not trust congressional lawmakers and 9% said they didn’t know.]

Rates of approval peaked in the early 2000s when over 60% approved of the way Congress was handling its job and has dropped precipitously since then.

The same precipitous drop is true about trust of national government.  [Question: “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?”]  Trust of national government hit an all-time low in October 2011 of 10%.  Back in the early 2000s, about 55% of Americans said they trusted the government in Washington.

One can see the time series for Congressional approval and trust of the federal government since 1977 here.

For sure, a heavy component in these declines in trust are macro assessments about the economy and the country.  That said, at least in the short-term, the precipitous decline in trust of government presents a strong headwind for those who aspire to mobilize government to do something either about record high levels of inequality or to help stimulate the US out of the deepest recession it has experienced in the last century.   I am also working on some scholarship with Chaeyoon Lim (not yet published) that suggests that partisanship may be greater in times of greater economic woes, so this may also be playing a role in the declining trust.

See earlier comments of Bob Putnam from 18 months ago on these declines in governmental trust.

The Hormones of Governmental Trust?

Oxytocin configuration

There was an interesting segment on NPR with Paul Zak (neuroscientist at Claremont)  and Margaret Levi (political scientist at U. Washington).

I’ve written earlier about the role of oxytocin in trust of strangers, but Zak has recently done some research that he believes explains how  oxytocin produces higher trust in strangers which then produces higher trust in government.  A “two-step” process.

Margaret Levi said Zak’s finding is consistent with Robert Putnam’s bottom-up hypothesis of trust that he highlighted in Bowling Alone.

“Putnam argues that the way in which trust in government is generated is basically bottom up. It’s from the relationships that we form with others through various kinds of neighborhood and local organizations – soccer clubs, choir groups. And we come to have confidence and trust in each other. And that trust in people leads to a trust in the institutions of government and the institutions of the economy.”

Both Levi and Putnam recognize that if the government in turn is dishonest, trust in government evaporates.

Zak notes in his controversial work that the connection between lower trust in government and harder economic times may be that economic recessions are stressful and stress is a toxin for oxytocin.

The piece also is interesting in describing a girl (“Isabelle”) with Williams syndrome where due to a hormonal imbalance and an excess of oxytocin, she trusts everyone, in a world where only some can be trusted.  Her mom is incapable of teaching her to be less trusting since she is fighting Isabelle’s biology.

When The ‘Trust Hormone’ Is Out Of Balance” (4/22/10, NPR)

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)

Growing Disapproval of Congress and government

(Photo by Lergik)

Gallup’s recent Ethics survey showed how low opinions of Congress have fallen.

In late August, a Rassmussen survey suggested that 57% of Americans would prefer getting rid of all Congresspersons and re-electing a new slate.

In a Pew survey from November, 2009: “About About half (52%) of registered voters would like to see their own representative re-elected next year, while 34% say that most members of Congress should be re-elected. Both measures are among the most negative in two decades of Pew Research surveys.”

Of course, there is always a strange discrepancy here:  Americans say that Congress is terrible, but most Americans think highly (or at least more highly) of their OWN representative.  [For example, a 2006 FOX poll found that 27% approve of Congress’ performance but 53% approve of their own representative’s performance.] And more than 90% of Congresspersons are re-elected each year.

Between 1980 and 1994 net ratings of own representative (% approve minus % disapprove) ranged from 40 to 60 points positive (with highs in 1984 and 1988). Net ratings of Congress ranged from 20 points positive to almost -40.  The trends in both net ratings (Congress and own representative) have been sharply down since 1988.  (See “Great Theatre: The American Congress in the 1990s.”)  See also recent NY Times poll (4/10) that showed 17% approving of Congress and 73% disapproving (or a net approval of -56); this was even stronger among Tea Party sympathizers where net approval of their representative was -9 percentage points and net approval of Congress was -95 (1% approved and 96% disapproved).

Since 1994, net approval ratings have fallen further.  For example, polls by Gallup and FOX in late 2008 had negative net ratings of Congress of -60 (generally with approval rates in teens and disapproval rates in the -70s).   For some of these trends, see here.  Net approval ratings of one’s own Congressperson fell to the high twenties or low thirties by 2006/2007 (in ABC/Washington Post polls).  But a most recent NY Times poll conducted of the general public (in conjunction with a poll on Tea Party sympathizers), found that 46% approved of the job of their representative versus 36% that disapproved.

How is it possible that most Congresspeople are highly rated by constituents but the collective body is poorly rated?  Few bad apples.  Everyone doing a relatively job of representing their constituents but relatively few putting national priorities ahead of their parochial interests.  Ratings are lower for individuals who they just don’t know.  Political parties as an institution are more interested in making other party look bad (to increase number of seats in the next election) than in getting things done.  Increasing role of special interests, PACs, lobbyists.  And the decline of the numbers of moderates in Congress (as articulated by Mo Fiorina and McCarty/Poole/Rosenthal) are decreasingly enabling Congress to find important middle ground.

And this is the graph over time of trust of government from Pew Surveys (darker blue line), which staged a resurgence from 1996-2001 but has been declining steadily since then, and is now at a near all time low.

Figure