Trust in Washington is perilously low, disapproval of Congress is embarrassingly high, and outsider candidates remain at the top of the GOP polls. But underneath Americans' rising hostility toward the federal government is a relationship that's considerably more nuanced than broadly worded survey questions might suggest, a Pew Research report released Monday found.
The list of negatives ascribed to the nation's leadership is extensive. Just 19 percent of Americans trust the federal government always or most of the time, according to Pew, a near-record low that marks a continuation of "the longest period of low trust in government in more than 50 years." Fifty-nine percent said the federal government needs "very major reform," with more than three-quarters saying it does only a poor or fair job of running programs. Seventy-nine percent describe themselves either as "angry" or "frustrated" with the government. Most say they'd rather have a smaller government that provides fewer services.
Yet, when asked specifically about a list of duties, most of the nation still wants the government to play a major role in everything from ensuring national defense to maintaining infrastructure. And with a few notable exceptions, Americans think Washington is doing a good job at upholding those responsibilities -- especially when it comes to keeping the public safe from terrorism, natural disasters and unsafe food or drugs. Most federal agencies, with the exceptions of the IRS and the Departments of Education and Veterans Affairs, are also viewed positively.
There's even widespread partisan agreement on what the government's responsibilities should be, although the two parties diverge on the necessity of a social safety net. Democrats are solidly in support of the government ensuring access to health care and helping people emerge from poverty. In contrast, only about one-third of Republicans want the government to play a major role in either, ranking both issues behind not only immigration and terrorism, but also "advancing space exploration."
So, what's making Americans so likely to tell pollsters that they're fed up with the government in general? One of the main underlying complaints may be a growing sense of disenfranchisement. Few people feel as though they have much say in what the government does, or that it's doing well at helping them personally.
Only 19 percent of Americans believe that government is run for the benefit of all the people, rather than for a few big interests looking out for themselves; just 23 percent think that elected officials care what people like them think. A broad majority agree that money has a greater influence on politics than it used to.
Remarkably, nearly two-thirds of all Americans, including a majority in both parties, say that "their side" is losing more often than it's winning on the issues that matter to them. The sentiment is especially profound among Republicans, 79 percent of whom feel as they're on the losing side.
That's also making them question their fellow citizens -- just about one-third say they have even a good deal of confidence in the political wisdom of the American people, down from 57 percent eight years ago.
But most still don't see their political opponents as the enemy.
"Although there has been a marked rise in partisan antipathy -- the dislike of the opposing party -- in recent years, most Americans do not go so far as to say they view politics as a struggle between right and wrong," the Pew report finds.
Pew surveyed 6,004 adults between Aug. 27 and Oct. 4, using live interviewers to reach both landlines and cell phones. In most of the report, the opinions of Republicans and Democrats are reported including independents or other non-partisans who lean toward those parties. Read the full report here.
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