Americans are pretty unhappy with their federal government right now.
Television, radio, the Internet and newspapers are full of angry voices and words directed at the president and Congress. At the extremes, we hear calls for secession and armed resistance.
It would be easy to conclude that we’re living in the worst of times, that the country is about to disintegrate.
But a new survey and report from the Pew Research Center makes clear that what we’re seeing is part of a regular cycle in American politics over the past half-century.
The survey of 1,502 adults, conducted Jan. 9-13 and released Jan. 31, shows that only 26 percent of Americans say they “trust the government in Washington to do what is right” all or most of the time.
That’s actually a higher number than I expected — although certainly nothing to feel good about.
And yes, there are differences with respect to age and political affiliation. Thirty-five percent of people 18-29-years-old trust the government, but only 22 or 23 percent of the various age groups over 30.
Republicans, Independents and Democrats stand at 15, 21 and 38 percent respectively, with some meaningful differences even within each of those groups.
Then Pew puts this discouraging snapshot into a broader context by pointing to the results of earlier surveys that asked the same question.
In a neat interactive graphic (http://tinyurl.com/bcsv6wj) that reaches back to 1958, Pew shows that trust in government regularly rises and falls in response to the tensions of the times.
During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, the government enjoyed trust levels in the mid-70-percent range. That continued into the Johnson years — until opposition to the Great Society programs and doubts about the war in Vietnam knocked trust down into the low 60s. Nixon’s Washington inherited those numbers, but the level of trust had plunged to 36 percent by the time he resigned.
At that point the graph begins to look like plans for a roller coaster.
Trust in Washington rose at the end of Carter’s term and was in the 40s through Reagan’s term. Then economic troubles hit and the trust level plunged to 25 percent under Bush the elder, rose again to 47 percent during the First Gulf War, then nosedived to 23 percent. Along came Clinton, and trust went through the floor, down to 17 percent during his first term.
But guess what? By the end of Clinton’s second term, it was back to 42 percent.
Under Bush the younger, the government started in the mid-40s — but right after 9/11, the number jumped to 60 percent. Then it was all downhill. By the end of Bush’s second term, Americans’ trust in government was at 17 percent, matching the previous all-time low of 1994.
Government with Obama in the White House started in the low 20s, took a significant dip into the teens, and then bounced back up to the 26 percent we see today.
Quite a ride.
The numbers make it clear that the 1950s and early 60s were different, and those of us who were around then can remember those differences.
People were raised to respect the government. Heck, during the TV show I watched every morning as a kid in Boston, Big Brother Bob Emery would ask us to join him in raising a glass of milk to salute the flag and a portrait of Eisenhower while “Hail to the Chief” played in the background. Can you even imagine that now?
Also, the press wasn’t nearly as aggressive in seeking out scandals or reporting on the the private lives of politicians. That all changed with Watergate, after which many reporters believed that bringing down the government, or at least some name politician, was the best path to journalistic prizes.
The later rise of cable television, talk radio and the Internet led to 24/7, coast-to-coast snarling about the evils of government, real or imaginary. Louder now than ever, it brings out the worst in people by focusing on what’s wrong with the country and generally ignoring what’s right — but such anger-mongering is a proven money-maker for the radicals and “entertainers” behind the mics, cameras and keyboards.
So we’re not likely to see 70 percent levels of trust in government again.
At the same time, we shouldn’t start thinking we’re on the edge of doom. Pew’s graph shows we’ve been here before, survived and bounced back.
Certainly, government can fail or overreach, and we should be vigilant and prepared to yell when it does. But government is not optional. It has a job to do. We have to trust it — or at least be fair in our criticisms.
Pew had an another interesting question in this survey. It asked whether “it’s the members of Congress that are the problem” or “the political system that is broken.”
A solid majority of Republicans (58 percent), Democrats (57) and Independents (56) said it’s the members.
How strange. In November, the American people voted to send a president and 468 members of Congress to Washington — and by January were saying they don’t trust them.
Maybe next time we should outsource the voting to Canada or India.
Apparently, we can’t trust ourselves to make good choices.
Rich Lewis, a former reporter and editor, teaches at Dickinson College. He can be reached at email@example.com. His column appears Sundays in The Sentinel.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!