Public trust of government is near its all-time low according to the Pew Research Center, which finds a perfect storm of factors -- including a deep recession, high unemployment and polarized Congress -- are driving distrust near an all-time high of 80%.
What accounts for this outpouring of discontent? After all, the recession is over, the economy is growing, and job losses have slowed dramatically in the last year. But overall distrust has been permanently scared since the early 1970s, and periods of recession and high unemployment depress public trust in government. Here are three key lessons from the Pew poll:
1) Blame Nixon, and stagflation
The United States government suffers from not seasonal, but structural disapproval. This poll isn't an outlying data point. It's part of an overall decline in government trust since the mid-1960s. The only time since 1975 that government trust broke 50% was in the months following 9/11. After the tumultuous assassinations of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, the resignation of President Nixon, and the stagflation of the late 1970s, public trust fell from 80% in 1966 to about 25% in 1981. Since then it's only peaked over 50% once, after 9/11. Nixon's scandal, the regularity of hyperpartisanship, the rise of cable news, and the annual parade of government frustrations that belie the quixotic campaign promises Americans now expect from outside candidates has permanently eroded faith in the US government.
2) Blame the recession
This graph tells a simple story: even as counter-cyclical spending tends to increase government support of Americans during recessions, Americans' faith in government consistently falls in downtimes. Note the spikes in distrust during the recessions of the mid-1970s, early 1980s, early 1990s and late 2000s. The only recession that did not cause a spike in distrust was the early 2000s, but the era of unity and patriotism that followed 9/11 accounts for that rare burst of trust in government.
3) Blame partisanship
If this sounds schizophrenic, it's hardly different from the schizophrenia Americans already suffer when we blast the government for deficit spending even as we largely defend entitlements (40% of the budget), defense spending (20%), relief for the unemployed, and the historically low tax rates that make the deficit the deficit. What does it mean that we've become a country that expects a government we don't trust to provide growing benefits from taxes we don't want to pay?