Below the Surface, Surprising Trust in Government

by Larry Bartels on December 26, 2011 · 4 comments

in Policy,Public opinion

This post is coauthored with my Vanderbilt colleague Marc Hetherington:

The politics of 2011 have been dominated by the fruitless search for a “grand bargain” to rein in the federal budget deficit, primarily by curtailing government spending. Much of the surface appeal of budget-cutting stems from a belief that citizens have become so disenchanted with their government that they will tolerate, and perhaps even embrace, having it do less. A recent New York Times poll found “Americans’ distrust of government at its highest level ever,” with only 10% saying they trusted the government in Washington to do what is right most of the time or always. The corresponding figure when Lyndon Johnson was president was around 70%.

The erosion of public trust in government is both real and politically consequential. However, the politics of deficit reduction may hinge less on Americans’ attitudes about government in the abstract than on their attitudes about the specific agencies and activities that would actually be on the chopping block in any major budget-cutting deal. With its broad focus on “the government in Washington,” the survey question employed in that New York Times poll—and in virtually all of the polling and scholarship on trust in government in the past half-century—turns out to provide a very misleading picture of citizens’ attitudes about government considered more concretely, piece by piece. Would-be budget-cutters will have to grapple with the fact that Americans have much more confidence in specific federal agencies than they have in “the government” as a whole.

Political scientists have long recognized that Americans are much more enthusiastic about specific politicians and programs than they are about the government in general. They are much more likely to approve of their own member of Congress than of Congress as a whole. And even most conservatives oppose cutting spending on specific  government programs, even while they strongly support overall cuts in government spending.

A similar divergence appears in citizens’ trust in government. When the Vanderbilt Poll asked a random sample of Tennesseans the familiar generic trust question in early November, only 15% said they trust “the government in Washington” to do what is right most of the time or just about always. Almost twice as many, 28%, said they never trust the government to do what is right.

However, when asked a moment later about some specific federal agencies, the same survey respondents expressed much more trust—even in parts of the government that might be considered highly controversial in a solidly red state like Tennessee. For example, 38% said they trust the Department of Health and Human Services, the department that will play the central role in implementing President Obama’s controversial health care reform plan.  Although 38% might not sound that high, it is about the same percentage of Americans who said they trusted the government at the end of Ronald Reagan’s term in office.

The same proportion, 38%, said they trust the Environmental Protection Agency, a frequent target of conservative criticism for excessive regulatory zeal. Only 15% said they never trust the EPA, and even fewer said they never trust HHS. Thus, even these controversial federal agencies elicited only about half as much distrust, and more than twice as much trust, as “the government in Washington.”

The congressional supercommittee’s failure to agree on a deficit reduction deal is supposed to trigger large automatic spending cuts, half from domestic programs like EPA and HHS and half from the Pentagon. Cuts to the Pentagon budget, in particular, will likely face substantial public opposition because trust in this part of the government is particularly high.  49% of Tennesseans said they trust the Department of Defense to do what is right most of the time or almost always, while only 7% said they never trust it. In light of these results, it is little wonder that some members of Congress are already scrambling to renege on the $600 billion in defense budget cuts they’d previously voted to include in the fallback plan for deficit reduction.

Today, politicians often treat “government” as a dirty word. Not even liberal Democrats have much positive to say about the government in Washington, so perhaps it should not be surprising that citizens sound equally cynical. However, it would be a significant mistake for political leaders to take that public cynicism too literally. Looking below the surface reveals a surprising degree of public trust, even in Tennessee, in the specific agencies that make up the federal government. Any budget deal that decimates those agencies will have to be justified on some other grounds.


Gaurav December 26, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Not sure how many people in TN actually know much about gov. agencies (outside of DMV), let alone their names. This is not to say that people know what ‘govt. in washington’ does. I would like to see what underpins trust. I certainly hope it isn’t ignorance.

Andrew Gelman December 26, 2011 at 10:00 pm


I’m confused. You write, “38% said they trust the Department of Health and Human Services . . . Although 38% might not sound that high, it is about the same percentage of Americans who said they trusted the government at the end of Ronald Reagan’s term in office.”

I have four comments/questions:

1. Yes, 38% doesn’t sound so high to me!

2. I also don’t see 38% support for the EPA as very impressive. The EPA protects the environment, and most people like the environment! Maybe Tennessee is just different from the rest of the country in that way.

3. I wonder about your comparison. Shouldn’t you be comparing support for HHS now to support for HHS in 1988? Given your evidence above, it seems plausible that “the government” was less popular than individual agencies then too.

4. Is 1988 a good baseline? After Iran-Contra, the U.S. government didn’t seem very trustworthy (and 1988 was before the fall of the Soviet Union so it was difficult to retroactively say that Iran-Contra was ok in the grand scheme of things).

I guess what I’m saying is, I’d like to see the series for trust in “the government” and also trust in individual agencies.

Frank in midtown December 27, 2011 at 12:38 pm

I think it is a silly survey question, like the one about liking Congress. Liberal’s don’t trust “government” because it is over-run by the influence of the wealthy/corporations and under-delivers on “fairness.” Conservatives don’t like the government because it is over-run by influence of the poor/unions and under-delivers on “freedom.” I quote marked each group’s overarching goal, as they are merely espoused goals. Both groups need government to meet their actual goals.

Larry Bartels December 27, 2011 at 6:01 pm

Gaurav: Political scientists are used to finding substantial admixtures of ignorance in what people think and say about politics, so I see no reason to assume that our survey respondents are splendidly well-informed about what goes on inside EPA or the Pentagon. The fact that they are rather more trusting of the Pentagon than of EPA or HHS suggests that they have _some_ basis for making distinctions; but we will probably need much more data on different parts of government–and on the same parts of government at different times–to get a good handle on “what underpins trust” in specific government agencies and activities.

Andrew: You can find the National Election Studies time series of trust in government from 1958 through 2008 in the “ANES Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior” at Reagan’s second term stands out as a high point between the troughs of the ’70s and ’90s (a level of trust only reached again, ironically, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal). Unfortunately, there are no parallel time series gauging trust in specific government agencies. If there were, I imagine that they would show disparities in levels of general and specific trust similar to those we have documented in 2011. Our point is not that the divergence between general and specific trust is something new; our point is that the divergence has gone unrecognized, and may be worth thinking about as a potential political hurdle facing budget-cutters. It is one thing to have to cut $600 billion from the Pentagon budget when 15% of the public trusts the government in Washington to do what’s right; it may be another thing to have to cut $600 billion from the Pentagon budget when 49% of the public trusts the Pentagon to do what’s right.

Frank: I was for many years in the “silly survey question” camp myself. Political scientists spent a good deal of time studying the intriguing erosion of trust in government but very little time exploring the political implications of that erosion. However, there has been some very good work along the latter lines in the past decade, most notably Marc’s 2004 book, _Why Trust Matters_. More recently, Adrien Degeorges, a graduate student at Sciences Po in Paris, has been studying how the relationship between trust and policy preferences differs for Democrats and Republicans and under Democratic and Republican presidents. Work of that sort should give us a clearer understanding of where “trust in government” fits in American political culture and how it interacts with partisanship and ideology.

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