It's no secret that the American public views its elected officials with some combination of disgust, disappointment and distrust. Congress's approval rating is in used-car-salesman territory, and with every legislative crisis it dips, somewhat amazingly, lower.
But, as bad things are, there is a tendency to assume that the current attitude toward the federal government is sort of how it always has been. Except that it hasn't always been like that.
This chart is taken from a broader interactive project from the Pew Research Center that aims to document public attitudes toward the federal government from 1958 to the present day. It documents the percentage of people who said they trust the government in Washington either "just about always" or "most of the time."
There are any number of interesting storylines in the chart -- for much of the 1960s, more than seven in 10 people expressed considerable trust in the government in Washington! -- but what struck us most was how the current low period of government trust is, unlike past periods of distrust, seemingly unconnected to an obvious event or events.
When public trust in government collapsed from 53 percent in 1972 to 36 percent in November 1974, it made sense. The Watergate investigation, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, was just the sort of ugly -- and prolonged -- episode to make public perception of government erode in a relatively rapid manner.
Ditto the historically low trust ratings reached in Pew polling in the early 1990s, as a series of congressional scandals -- with the House Bank scandal being the most prominent -- produced large amounts of media coverage focused on what the heck politicians were doing in the nation's capital.
But the recent drop, which began in earnest after the goodwill toward Washington surrounding its actions in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks wore off, seems disconnected to any single notable event. There have been a fair share of legislative standoffs and scandals in recent years, but nothing nearly as heavily covered or broad as Watergate or the House bank.
Instead, it appears to be a political death -- or at least bloodletting -- by a thousand cuts. No one event is to blame. Rather, something even more corrosive to government appears to be happening -- a steady and growing belief that politicians in Washington are simply not to be trusted.
(It's worth noting that this decline in trust in government has corresponded with a decline in trust in other major pillars of American life -- from the financial sector to sports. Thanks a lot Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire!)
The depressing reality of Pew's long-term trend on trust in government is that there is no obvious cure for what ails the body politic these days. Without a clear cause, a sure solution isn't available. It's possible that we are simply in a new era in which trust in institutions like our government simply won't ever approach -- or come close to approaching -- its historic highs.
The end times of trust in government may well be upon us.
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