Public Opinion

What Will Make People Trust Goverment Again?

Feb 14 '10

Barack Obama thinks it’s restrictions on lobbyists and more openness:

bq. We face a deficit of trust — deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap, we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to end the outsized influence of lobbyists, to do our work openly, to give our people the government they deserve.

David Brooks thinks it’s Barack Obama:

bq. We can spend the next few years engaging in kabuki bipartisanship, in which each party puts on pseudo-events to show that the other party is rigid and rotten, or somebody can break the mold. We can spend the next three or seven years squabbling about the shrinking puddle of discretionary spending, or somebody can break out of the fiscal vise.

bq. It would be an incredible legacy: Barack Obama restored America’s faith in its own institutions.

These prescriptions miss the point. It’s not special interests and partisanship that have made Americans lose their faith in government. In fact, nothing has been permanently lost: over the past 30 years, Americans have gained, lost, re-gained, and “re-lost” faith in government. Here is the trend in one indicator from the American National Election Studies. The survey question is:

bq. 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?

“None of the time” was accepted as a volunteered response, and I include those who did so in the graph below. For the sake of argument, consider a “trusting” response to include “just about always” and “most of the time.”


The secular decline in trust in government stopped in 1980. Trust increased and then decreased during the 1980s. Then it increased sharply in the 1990s, rising to levels not seen since the mid-1960s. It peaked in 2002 and declined again thereafter. Another measure of trust that combines this and other survey questions shows a similar trend.

It is difficult to make these ups and downs conform to a narrative about partisanship or special interests. Partisan polarization in Congress has been increasing consistently over this period. I can’t imagine that special interests or lobbyists or their ilk suddenly had less influence in the mid-1980s or 1990s.

What drives the trend in political trust? By and large, it is the economy. People trust government when times are good. They don’t trust it when times are bad. For the presidential election years from 1964-2008, I merged the trust measure with the change in per capita disposable income, courtesy of Douglas Hibbs. Here is the relationship between trust and the economy:


The relationship is striking. The economy explains about 75% of the variance in trust. If you delete 1964, which looks like a potential outlier, the economy still explains 73% of the variance.

Of course the economy is not the only important factor. But it gets far less attention than it deserves when the hand-wringing begins. So, sure, perhaps we can and should tinker with the political process. Clip lobbyists’ wings. Get leaders to make nicey-nicey with the opposite party. But the process is less important than outcomes. More people will trust the government again when times are good, even if government ain’t.