This weekend Attorney General William Barr released a memo summarizing the results of a special prosecutor’s investigation of President Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Barr wrote that he intends “to release as much of the Special Counsel’s report as I can consistent with applicable law, regulations, and Departmental policies," but that didn’t stop Democrats in Congress from demanding that the full contents of Robert S. Mueller III’s report be made public.
New data from the General Social Survey underscores why many voters might not be content to accept Barr’s conclusions without seeing the findings for themselves: Public confidence in the people running the executive branch of the federal government is hovering near record lows.
In 2018, for instance, just 12 percent of Americans said they had a “great deal” of confidence in the people running the executive branch, which includes the White House and the Department of Justice. As recently as 2002 that number was as high as 27 percent.
The share of people expressing “hardly any” confidence, meanwhile, has climbed to 44 percent, roughly double the level in 2002 and the highest reading, along with 2014′s number, in more than four decades of General Social Survey polling. That’s slightly worse, for instance, than the 42 percent reported in 1974, on the eve of the President Nixon’s resignation. The share of people with “only some” confidence, meanwhile, has dropped from nearly 60 percent in 1978 to 42 percent today.
These figures are driven, in part, by a growing partisan gap in trust: In 2018, 64 percent of Democrats said they had “hardly any” trust in the executive branch, compared with just 21 percent of Republicans who said the same. Although those numbers typically flip-flop depending on which party controls the White House, last year’s figures are notable for being the largest partisan gap in the poll’s four-decade history.
During the Reagan years, for instance, the parties were an average of 17 points apart in their trust of the executive branch. Today more than 40 points separate the parties.
The executive branch is hardly alone in facing a crisis of public confidence: the General Social Survey shows similar levels of public skepticism of Congress and the press. But taken together, the lack of confidence in those three institutions underscores the deep distrust that characterizes our current political moment. Congress, the Justice Department and the media are the institutions typically charged with investigating wrongdoing within the federal government. In the Watergate era, distrust in the executive branch was somewhat offset by greater trust in Congress and the news media. Today the public is sour on all three.
Americans increasingly view the actions of government through a partisan lens, while skepticism of institutions has left room for falsehoods and conspiracy theories to flourish. Even worse, from the standpoint of social cohesion, is that growing distrust isn’t limited to the political realm: in 2018 the number of Americans saying that “most people” cannot be trusted stood at 64 percent, just 1 point away from the record high set four years earlier.