80 Percent of Americans Don't Trust the Government. Here's Why

Blame the recession. Also, blame Nixon.

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.

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3) Blame partisanship

Politics is allegedly zero-sum, but eroding trust has hurt both parties. The lesson in the graph below is that while rising public distrust generally spells trouble for incumbents (bad news for Democrats), the current falloff has actually been much more dramatic for the Republican Party, which is experiencing the lowest public trust levels of any party in the last 50 years among Republican survey respondents.

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What does this survey mean for the future? A poll is just a poll, but there is evidence that economic downturns and collapsing distrust in government leave lasting scars on the body politic. In their NBER working paper Growing up in a Recession, co-authors Paola Giuliano and Antonio Spilimbergo found that individuals going through a recession trust Congress less, but rely on it more. It is difficult to determine whether recessions set the stage for rising Democratic or Republican tendencies: "on the one hand, recession-hit individuals believe that the government should intervene more, so they lean more to the left. On the other hand, these individuals distrust institutions, believing them to be ineffective, therefore leaning more to the right."

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?