This chart from Pew is a few months old, but as Kevin Drum notes, it’s newly relevant in light of the Occupy Wall Street protests and the resurgence of populism that we’re seeing in recent weeks:

In addition to the things Kevin says about the survey, it raises an important question: Why is it so widely assumed that polls showing high distrust in government automatically support the conservative narrative?

It’s true that multiple polls have shown recently that trust in government to do the right thing is at abysmal lows. And when those polls come out you routinely see Republican operatives Tweeting them gleefully. But the problem with those polls is they don’t probe why distrust in government is running so high. For all we know, some of the reasons for it could also support the liberal narrative. For instance, what if anti-government sentiment is running high because Congress isn’t passing jobs creation and fiscal policies — including tax hikes on the rich — that are supported by large majorities of the American people? Folks who aren’t tuned into the details of Senate procedure might not know why government isn’t acting on those policies; they might just see government failing them even as the crisis continues, and react accordingly.

Majorities say they want higher taxes on the rich and say wealth should be more even in this country. Congress isn’t hiking taxes on the rich. Fifty four percent tell Pew government protects the rich a “great deal,” versus a tiny minority who say they are getting helped by government. And at the same time, distrust in government is at historic highs. You think those things might be related? And how does all that bolster the right’s argument?

Or what if anti-goverment sentiment is running high because policymakers have been preoccupied with the deficit over jobs for months and months, when the American people have clearly said again and again that they want unemployment to be the top priority?

If anything, Occupy Wall Street suggests that there’s a general sense out there that all of our instutions are failing people. If the public is angry at government out of a general sense that it failed to prevent private sector excess from damaging the economy and their lives, it’s hard to see how that supports the conservative argument. Similarly, if the public is losing faith in government’s ability to fix the economy — because government isn’t passing jobs creation and stimulus policies the public supports — it’s also hard to see how that supports the conservative argument.

I’m not saying I know for sure that the above are the reasons for the current levels of distrust in government. I’m just saying we don’t really know what the explanation for it is. Yet it’s simply assumed that this distrust supports the conservative storyline. Absent better polling on these questions, however, that’s nothing but pure speculation.