Public trust in the federal government in Washington is at one of its lowest levels in half a century. Just 22% of Americans say they trust the government to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (19%). The current level of skepticism was matched previously only in the periods from 1992 to 1995 (reaching as low as 17% in the summer of 1994), and 1978 to 1980 (bottoming out at 25% in 1980). When the National Election Study first asked this question in 1958, 73% of Americans trusted the government to do what is right just about always or most of the time.

The forces contributing to the current wave of public distrust include an uncertain economic environment, overwhelming discontent with Congress and elected officials, and a more partisan environment. The bitter and drawn-out health care debate exacerbated negative feelings about government – particularly Congress. During the final House debate over health care reform, public perceptions of Congress reached an all-time low. And the public’s impressions of elected officials as corrupt, wasteful, self-centered, unwilling to compromise, and indifferent to the concerns of regular Americans are widespread.

Yet dissatisfaction with government predates the health care debate and even Barack Obama’s presidency. After increasing in the immediate wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, trust in government began slipping almost immediately and continued to tumble with the debate over the war in Iraq, a series of White House and congressional scandals, the government’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina, and worsening economic conditions. The public’s view of government became even more negative during the financial meltdown and bank bailout in late 2008. A CBS/New York Times poll conducted in October 2008 found just 17% trusting the federal government to do what is right – a low seen previously only in a June 1994 Gallup survey.

The Economy, Satisfaction and Trust in Government

It is no surprise that trust in government falls during economic hard times. Historically, confidence in government corresponds with broader measures of satisfaction with the state of the nation and economic stress. The low points in government trust over the past half-century have occurred during the nation’s economic struggles in the late 1970s, the early 1990s, and over the past few years. And confidence in government recovered in the late 1980s and late 1990s, when economic growth was strong and satisfaction was high.

In 1979, Gallup found just 19% of Americans satisfied with the way things were going in the country, and public trust in government was at 29% that year. By the spring of 1980, the Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index fell to an all-time low of 54, and trust in government slipped further to 25%. Both satisfaction and consumer confidence grew over the course of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and trust in government also rebounded somewhat. But all three measures fell again in 1990 as economic problems worsened.

Despite a brief spike in satisfaction with the nation and trust in government at the start of the Gulf War in early 1991, continued economic problems through 1992 caused the steepest drop ever in both satisfaction and trust in government. Gallup polls found satisfaction with the state of the nation falling from 66% to 14% between February 1991 and June 1992. And according to CBS/New York Times polls conducted over that period, trust in government fell 25 points in just a year-and-a-half (from 47% in March 1991 to 22% in October 1992).

While satisfaction with national conditions, consumer sentiment and trust in government generally move together, there have been periods when these measures diverge. By 1993, satisfaction rebounded slightly, and consumer confidence rose substantially, yet trust in government continued to decline. And while consumer sentiment reached record highs in the late 1990s, and satisfaction rose as well, trust in government lagged far behind.

Political Implications of Trust in Government

Public confidence in government reached historic lows in 1994, a few months before the GOP gained control of Congress. However, public trust in government was already at a very low level two years earlier, when 43 House members lost their seats and many others retired in the face of poor reelection prospects. Not only had economic conditions turned deeply negative, but the House banking scandal that year came to symbolize much of what Americans felt was wrong with the political system. While this scandal affected both Democrats and Republicans, it resulted in the largest turnover in House seats since 1974.

The broad frustration with government in 1992 also sparked an unprecedented rejection of both political parties. For the first time in modern history a plurality of Americans chose “independent” as their partisan affiliation and Ross Perot garnered 19% of the popular vote as an independent candidate for the White House.

By 1994 distrust in government had increased following missteps in the early Clinton administration and the fight over health care reform. The Republican Party picked up 54 seats in that fall’s midterm election on a platform of government reform, deficit reduction and term limits for members of Congress. Over this period, conservative talk radio tapped into the widespread anti-government sentiment. Trust in government recovered between 1994 and 1998, only to plummet temporarily with the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

In general, when trust falls steeply incumbents are more likely to lose – and the president’s party tends to lose the most. Following Nixon’s resignation in 1974, trust in government fell to 36% (from 53% in 1972). Democrats made huge gains as 48 incumbents – nearly all of them Republicans – lost reelection bids. When trust fell to 25% in 1980, Republicans made great gains as 37 incumbents – nearly all of them Democrats – were defeated. The collapse in government confidence in 1992 hurt both parties, but especially the Democrats, and the continuing decline in 1994 led to the Republicans gaining their first majority in the House in four decades.

Over the last two election cycles, the effects of low trust also have been evident. In 2006, 24 incumbents lost seats – all of them Republicans – as Democrats regained control of Congress. And in 2008 Democrats grew their majority larger and won the White House, when trust was at or near record lows.

Partisanship and Trust in Government

Despite taking a conservative position on most issues related to government size and power, Republicans do not consistently feel less trustful of government than Democrats. Since the National Election Study began asking about trust in government in 1958, Republicans have consistently been more trusting when there has been a Republican in the White House, and Democrats have been more trusting when the presidency is held by a Democrat. Republicans felt far better about government under Nixon, Reagan and Bush than Democrats did under Carter, Clinton or Obama.

As with many other aspects of American politics, partisan divisions in trust in government have grown larger in recent decades. Averaging across the eight years George W. Bush served as president, 50% of Republicans said they could trust the government in Washington always or most of the time. Across that same period just 26% of Democrats offered the same assessment. This 24-point divide in government trust was larger than was the case under any previous administration.

While partisanship is a factor, the shifts in government trust tend to span party lines. Independents consistently take a relatively skeptical view of government – their views at any given time tend to track with whichever partisan group does not hold the presidency. During the Nixon, Reagan and both Bush administrations, about as many independents as Democrats trusted government. During the Carter and Clinton administrations, independents expressed as low or lower levels of trust than did Republicans. So far, the early part of the Obama administration represents a slight deviation from this pattern. While independent levels of trust are very low, Republican trust has been even lower.

During the first part of Barack Obama’s presidency, partisan differences in trust in government are nearly as large as they were during George W. Bush’s administration. Across six surveys conducted after Obama’s election, an average of 12% of Republicans say they trust government all or most of the time, compared with 33% of Democrats – a 21-point gap. The average partisan gap over the previous eight years was 24 points (26% of Democrats, 50% of Republicans), although overall levels of trust were higher.

While Obama’s term in office is still young, the average level of public trust in government over the past year-and-a-half is lower than the average under any previous administration. However, current ratings of government trust are nearly identical to those in the first part of Bill Clinton’s presidency. In 1993 and early 1994 an average of just 23% of Americans said they trusted government always or most of the time, including 14% of Republicans, 18% of independents and 28% of Democrats.

The figures over the past year-and-a-half are similar, though slightly more polarized: 22% trust government overall, including 12% of Republicans, 18% of independents and 33% of Democrats. And as with Clinton, much of the distrust in government Obama currently faces was already present prior to his taking office.

The Precursors to 2010

The current frustration Americans feel toward government, is best understood by looking back at the events and issues of the past decade. The largest spike in public trust in government occurred after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A Gallup survey conducted in early October of that year found 60% saying they trusted the government always or most of the time, roughly double the number who said this (31%) in a CBS/New York Times survey earlier in the year.

The post-9/11 rise in public confidence in government crossed party lines – for the first time in over 30 years (since 1970) majorities of Republicans (70%), Democrats (53%) and independents (54%) said they felt they could trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time. But the spike in confidence was short-lived. By December 2001, fewer than half of Americans said they trusted government.

In July 2003, 36% said they trusted government, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll. Just 27% of Democrats said they trusted government – about half the number who felt that way in October 2001. There was a comparable decline in trust among independents (from 54% to 30%). Even among Republicans, the proportion saying they trusted government fell from 70% to 53%.

Overall public trust in government slipped to 31% in the fall of 2005 following the government’s poorly-rated response to Hurricane Katrina, a series of political scandals, and public doubt about the war in Iraq. At the time, 54% of Republicans continued to express confidence in government, compared with just 23% of independents and 18% of Democrats.

The final two years of George W. Bush’s presidency saw further declines in public trust in government. By the summer of 2007, with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, only 24% of the public trusted the government. About a third of Republicans (32%) expressed confidence in government, and there were no improvements in the views of independents (22%) and Democrats (19%).

The financial crisis and government-sponsored bank bailout of late 2008 sent trust in government to new lows across party lines. A CBS/New York Times survey conducted in October 2008 found just 17% of Americans saying they trusted the government always or most of the time. Distrust of government became nearly universal – just 21% of Republicans, 14% of Democrats and 11% of independents expressed confidence in the federal government in Washington to do what is right.

Following Obama’s 2008 victory, Democratic trust in government rebounded – currently 34% of Democrats express trust in the government to do the right thing. And trust among independents has recovered slightly to 20% today. Meanwhile, Republican trust has fallen even lower; just 13% of Republicans today say they generally trust the federal government – roughly on par with Republican views of government in June 1994 (11%).

The Current Trust Landscape

While party identification is closely linked to trust in government, other factors come into play as well. Roughly a third (32%) of adults under age 30 say they trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time, compared with 20% among all other age groups. Trust is also somewhat more widespread among college graduates (27%) than those with less education (20% of those with some college, 21% of those with a high school education or less).

Blacks are more likely than whites (37% vs. 20%) to say they trust government. This represents a sharp turnaround from the balance of opinion under George W. Bush. In particular, following Hurricane Katrina just 12% of blacks said they trusted the government always or most of the time, compared with 32% of whites.

Not surprisingly, just 7% of Americans who say they agree with the Tea Party movement feel they can always or mostly trust the government, while 92% say they trust the government only some of the time or never. By contrast, 39% of those who disagree with the Tea Party movement, and 25% of those who have never heard of the movement or have no opinion of it, say they trust the government. (For more detailed breakdowns on trust in government, see table on pg. 81)

A Health Care Recovery?

The main Pew Research Center survey reported here was conducted during the final stages of the congressional debate over health care reform – an undoubtedly tense and divisive moment in politics. To determine whether the passage of the legislation altered peoples’ views, a new survey that included the trust measure was conducted April 1-5, after the bill’s passage. Overall, there was little change in opinions – 25% of Americans in early April said they thought they could trust the government just about always or most of the time, which was virtually unchanged from 22% in March. However, trust among Democrats rose somewhat from 34% in March to 42% in early April.