Why Most Americans Don’t Trust the Government Anymore, and How Donald Trump Has Affected That
The United States takes “In God We Trust” as its motto, but it seems that Americans trust in little else right now. They especially don’t trust the government or the other institutions of our society. Unpopular wars, economic recessions, and widely disliked policies can all have an effect. And so can the election of a controversial president, like Donald Trump. But Americans trust the U.S. government now less than ever — as do people in countries around the world. So what’s going on?
Read on to discover some of the biggest reasons why Americans don’t trust the government. And on page 10, find out what effect Donald Trump has had.
1. Americans’ trust in the government began eroding in the 1960s
The Pew Research Center reported late in 2017 that public trust in the government had reached historic lows. “Only 18% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right ‘just about always’ (3%) or ‘most of the time’ (15%),” Pew reported. Trust in the government began eroding in the 1960s amid the escalation of the Vietnam War.
The decline continued in the 1970s “with the Watergate scandal and worsening economic struggles,” Pew reports. It recovered in the mid-1980s but began falling again in the mid-1990s. As the economy grew in the late 1990s, people began to trust the government more. Trust reached a three-decade high just after 9/11, but quickly declined. And since 2007, the share of Americans who say they can trust the government hasn’t surpassed 30%.
Next: Trust ebbs and flows and presidents come and go.
2. Trust changes as presidents come and go
Americans’ trust in the government ebbs and flows with the presidents, not only because of the person in charge but also because of the party. The Pew Research Center reports that since the 1970s, trust in the government has been consistently higher among members of the party that controls the White House than among members of the opposition party.
But what’s interesting is that, as Pew puts it, “Republicans have been much more reactive than Democrats to changes in political power. Republicans have expressed much higher levels of trust during Republican than during Democratic presidencies, while Democrats’ attitudes have tended to be more consistent, regardless of which party controls the White House.”
Next: Fewer Americans think this force is good for them.
3. Fewer people think globalization is good for them, personally
Pew reported in 2014 that most of the world supports globalization in theory, but many — including in the United States — have some reservations about in practice. What’s at play is people’s perception that while globalization is good for the country, it may not be good for them, personally.
The Conversation reports that that could be a factor in Americans’ current mistrust of the government. “Trust and confidence in government waxes and wanes; an unpopular war or economic recession deflates the numbers only to be reinflated when the war ends or when the economy picks up,” the publication explains. “But the ending of the long postwar boom and the declining confidence in economic globalization have raised a structural rather than just a temporal crisis of confidence.”
Next: Neither major party has addressed these concerns.
4. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have addressed blue-collar workers’ concerns
The Conversation notes that the blue-collar middle class in the United States has been declining since at least 1975. The decline has particularly accelerated since 2000. One of the most visible factors is deindustrialization, with manufacturing jobs declining, technology decreasing the need for human labor, declining unionization reducing labor’s bargaining power, and trade policies making it easier for foreign manufacturers to import cheaper goods.
People popularly refer to this collection of changes as globalization. As Pew found, people know that globalization is good for the nation, but also find that it isn’t always great for them, personally. And as The Conversation puts it, “The two mainstream political parties have failed to adequately address the concerns of the people affected.”
Next: Younger generations of Americans have this issue to consider.
5. Younger Americans won’t receive the same benefits as older Americans
The Conversation points to generational inequities as another factor that undermines Americans’ trust in the government. “Those born in good times get advantages over those born in bad times. And those lucky generations have a stronger allegiance to a system that they benefited from,” the publication reports. That makes perfect sense. But how does this contribute to Americans’ mistrust of the government?
“Generations younger than the Baby Boomer live with more restricted economic opportunities and limited social benefits as well,” The Conversation reports. “Because the political system favors the more elderly it has less appeal for younger voters.”
Next: Americans dislike this development of the last few decades.
6. The financial sector is richer and more powerful than ever
The Conversation characterizes the rise of Wall Street as “the most profound economic and political change in the last 30 years.” The financial sector is richer and more powerful than ever. And even as it gains a strong hold on the political system, ” its interests diverge from those of Main Street or the real economy,” the publication explains.
The 2008 bailout showed just how much political power Wall Street has gained — and people are unhappy about it. The BBC notes that the decision to bail out the banks “has shaped many Americans’ current distrust of the central banking system more than the prolonged period of low interest rates.” Politicians on both sides of the aisle criticized the bailout as coming at the expense of American taxpayers.
Next: Americans also disapprove of this change.
7. There’s more money in politics than ever before
Another factor that undermines trust in the government? The amount of money that’s involved in politics, a concern that The Atlantic characterizes as residing “at the very heart of complaints about elections.” The Conversation reports that the “financialization of politics” has the effect of insulating the political elite from popular opinion.
Politicians need money to win races and stay in power. Interest groups with the most money have the most access — and the most power to influence politicians. While regular people can exercise their political choice at the polls during elections, people with money can exercise political power all the time.
Next: People only trust a few institutions.
8. Just three institutions have the trust of more than half of Americans
RealClearPolitics reports that according to Gallup polls, just three institutions — the military, small business, and the police — still have the trust of more than half of Americans. The publication notes that Congress has approval ratings approaching zero because Americans don’t trust candidates to work for their interests. People see the FBI as “just another appendage of the political establishment.” They don’t trust the IRS to be fair. They don’t have faith in the integrity of the intelligence community.
Plus, Americans don’t think the public education system is working. They’ve written off the mainstream media. And they don’t trust their political parties anymore. As RealClear Politics reports, “Washington either does not understand the perfect storm gathering or chooses to ignore it.”
Next: This choice by presidents has made it more difficult for Americans to trust the government.
9. Presidents have routinely lied to the American people
Many people criticize Donald Trump for his loose interpretations of the truth, something that, at least in some circles, undermines the public’s trust in the office. But as The Hill reports, this isn’t a new problem under the Trump administration.
“Trump’s lies deserve to be exposed and condemned,” the publication concedes. “But Bush’s and Obama’s lies help explain why only 20 percent of Americans trusted the federal government at the end of Obama’s reign. Pretending America recently had a Golden Age of honest politicians encourages the delusion that toppling Trump is all that is necessary to make the federal government great again.”
Next: Donald Trump is having his own effect on our government, our institutions, and our trust in them.
10. Donald Trump is testing the institution of the presidency unlike his predecessors
The Atlantic reported in fall 2017 that Donald Trump is “testing the institution of the presidency” unlike any of his predecessors. Trump defies norms in ways that precipitate norm-breaking by other institutions, too. FiveThirtyEight notes that Americans “don’t trust their institutions anymore.” And as The Atlantic reports, “Citizens’ trust in American institutions has been in decline for a while. That’s one reason Donald Trump was elected.”
As the publication warns, “His assault on those institutions, and the defiant reactions to his assault, will further diminish that trust and make it yet harder to resolve social and political disputes.”
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