Social Studies October 2005

In the Wake Of Katrina, Will Anger at Government Storm Back?

Post-Katrina fans of Big Government take note: Polls back to the '60s show that the more ambitious Washington becomes, the lower the public's confidence in it.

The Bush years have been a miserable time for advocates of smaller government. So why is Fred Smith, the irrepressible president of the anti-government, pro-market Competitive Enterprise Institute, smiling? In a word: Katrina.

Not the hurricane—the political storm. Smith grew up near New Orleans. His brother's home there was swamped. His sister, west of the city, found herself hosting nine refugees. But what cheers Smith is President Bush's now-notorious praise for Michael Brown, the embattled (and now former) head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

"It was almost like he couldn't have possibly said that," Smith said in a recent interview. "If that's what government thought a good job was, then frankly, we'd prefer a worse job done by anyone else."

Since the late 1990s, anger at Big Government has been on the political back burner, but Smith thinks the government's bungling response to Katrina—and its (as he expects) soon-to-be-bungled response to its bungled response—will change that. "You can have good government, or you can have Big Government," Smith says, "but you can't have good Big Government. That argument is growing dramatically, and I think Katrina is going to make it grow more."

On its face, Smith's ebullience seems odd. The Katrina aftermath looks like the next in a series of Bush-era growth spurts for government, following hard upon the Iraq war, the Medicare prescription drug program, and the No Child Left Behind Act. On Capitol Hill, leaders of both parties have left little doubt that they will spend what it takes, and probably more, to make waterlogged Katrina victims—and storm-damaged politicians—whole. Interest groups are circling hungrily. No wonder The Washington Post headlined recently, "Katrina Ushers in Return of Big Government."

So which way will the politics play? Will Katrina undermine government's credibility or enhance government's power? To judge by experience, the answer may be: both.

The chart below graphs the public's answer to a perennial polling question, used since 1958 as a barometer of confidence in the federal government: "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right—just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?" The data are from polls by CBS News and The New York Times.

In the Eisenhower and Kennedy years (not shown in the chart), about three-fourths of the public said they trusted Washington "always" or "most of the time," but Vietnam, Watergate, and inflation led to the collapse in confidence that has come to define modern politics. In the mid-1970s, when the chart begins, confidence was in the 30s and falling.

The decades since then divide, albeit not neatly, into four periods. The Reagan years saw confidence in government both rise and stabilize. The Bush 41 and early Clinton periods saw confidence plummet (apart from a short-lived spike following the 1991 Persian Gulf War). Beginning in the mid-1990s, the trend turned around, with public confidence rising to Reagan-era levels before surging in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when people rallied to the government. The years since then have brought decline, recently back into the doldrums of the 30 percent range.

Many vectors shape the trends. The early-1990s numbers, for example, must have been affected by the recession of that period, and the late-1990s numbers by the economic boom. Still, it is striking that, going all the way back to the 1960s, a rough counterpoint emerges: The more ambitious Washington becomes, the lower the public's confidence in it.

Ike led cautiously and from the center. JFK did the same, despite his soaring rhetoric. It was when Washington set out to build a "Great Society" that the public's mood began to sour, a trend that President Nixon's cynicism and President Carter's fecklessness did nothing to reverse.

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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