Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 19, 2010

MISTRUSTFUL OF GOVERNMENT, BUT WITH CAVEATS.... It seems one of the big political stories of the morning is the results of a new Pew Research Center study, which found a large majority of Americans mistrustful of the federal government. The report noted, "By almost every conceivable measure, Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days."

For progressives, the results of the study may not be especially surprising, but they're nevertheless discouraging. One of President Obama's thematic challenges upon taking office was convincing the electorate that government activism can and should play a role in strengthening the country. That challenge appears even more daunting now, as more of the public opposes the idea of government action reflexively.

Indeed, there's apparently even a growing paranoia -- 30% of the public perceive their government as a "major threat" to their personal freedom, which is nearly double the number from seven years ago.

Opposition to greater government action does not, however, apply to everything.

There's one big exception, however. A solid majority, 61 percent, do want greater government regulation of the financial industry, something that Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress are pushing now.

Given the ongoing debate in the Senate, this is at least somewhat heartening. Republicans are no doubt tempted to argue, "Democrats want to sic big government on Wall Street," but it's a tough case to make -- Americans want big government go after Wall Street.

In the larger sense, I also wonder just how much thought is driving public attitudes on this. Americans are frustrated about a brutal recession, and we're coming off an era in which Republican corruption, mismanagement, and incompetence made the government look pretty awful in the eyes of the American mainstream.

As the economy improves, thanks to the efforts of a competent and effective government, I wouldn't be too surprised if this anti-government backlash subsides quite a bit.

Steve Benen 9:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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Comments

If a study's findings are consistently dependent upon the current state of the economy, then what good is that study?

Posted by: Quinn on April 19, 2010 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

Well, our "I can order any American killed any time I like" President has certainly made *me* more mistrustful.

Posted by: 14All on April 19, 2010 at 9:34 AM | PERMALINK

On NPR this morning Kohut made the point that the pattern is quite similar to that of 1993-1994, and at both times much of what has driven the rise in distrust of government is Republican attitudes. This was facilely attributed to Republicans being "the party of small government," which we know is operationally false. I think what we're actually seeing here is a sharp increase in distrust of government from those who only trust government when it's seen as controlled by and for people like themselves. Big government is OK if it helps "us," and not "them"; if "they" control it, though, it stands to reason that they'll use it to help the "wrong" people at "our" expense."

Posted by: David in Nashville on April 19, 2010 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

More closet racism.

Posted by: Michael7843853 on April 19, 2010 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

"Republicans are no doubt tempted to argue, "Democrats want to sic big government on Wall Street," but it's a tough case to make -- Americans want big government go after Wall Street."

And they are not arguing that. Here is the evil, disgusting genius of Luntz. They argue that Dems want shackle the public to endless bailouts with this FinReg bill. Really disgusting.

Posted by: Creature_NYC on April 19, 2010 at 9:39 AM | PERMALINK

As I recall, at the start of the HCR debate 60+ percent of the public was in favor of reform with a strong public option.

Then Fucksnews and the rightwing noise machine got on the case, aided and abetted by Rahm Emmanuel, Harry Reid, Max Baucaus, and Joe Lieberman, they managed to take the public option off the table and load the bill with goodies (compulsory customers) for the insurance industry.

Somehow, even when the rich and powerful "lose," the poor and middle class lose more.

It's no wonder we don't trust the goverment.

Posted by: Winkandanod on April 19, 2010 at 9:39 AM | PERMALINK

It's rare that I find Larry the Cable Guy's pearls of wisdom useful in a political context, but this post brings to mind his line---"Get 'er done".

Steve, you're right that people have good cause to distrust the federal government, especially after the Bush administration.

The distrust exists for good reason and goes back a good 30-40 years; it's been that long since the federal government has accomplished something big and useful for the majority of its citizens. (Think: Social Security, Medicare, the Interstate Highway System, the GI Bill.)

Assume the Affordable Care Act works to expand coverage and control costs. Assume the Recovery Act, and the smaller initiatives Congress is working on this year, works to end the recession and reduce unemployment. Assume the Democrats pass financial reform and it works to reign in the financial sector. Then we'll likely see trust in government begin to rise.

P.S. Like so many issues, this comes back to and touches on Senate rules reform. The minority's ability to obstruct and delay increases the public's distrust.

Posted by: massappeal on April 19, 2010 at 9:40 AM | PERMALINK

Well, the Republicans always say they want to win an election in the worst way and govern thusly. So far the last three GOP presidents have pretty much done that. It's like they set out to prove their own talking point all by themselves.

Posted by: Mustang Bobby on April 19, 2010 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

A solid majority, 61 percent, do want greater government regulation of the financial industry, something that Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress are pushing now....this is at least somewhat heartening.

Is it? Wasn't that number in the 80s a couple of months ago, or am I misremembering?

Posted by: shortstop on April 19, 2010 at 9:46 AM | PERMALINK

While it's true that people would "trust" government more if the economy were better, this only serves to point out the cleverness of the Republican strategy. Do everything humanly possible to hurt the economy and reap the electoral rewards. Democrats are constrained by their own pro-government principles. Republicans are not. At some point, the average citizen will have to experience the full ramifications of Republican nihlilism. Let the Randian bliss of a shredded safety net emerge from its novelistic abstraction. There's no other way to educate the average citizen. Arguments no longer work in this toxic environment.

Posted by: walt on April 19, 2010 at 9:52 AM | PERMALINK

Meanwhile, personal liberty to be insipidly stupid sociopaths is also on the rise with at least 28% of Americans completely disconnected from reality, responsibility and reason. (The three R's)

Posted by: Liberty's Trollop on April 19, 2010 at 9:53 AM | PERMALINK

"Republicans are no doubt tempted to argue, "Democrats want to sic big government on Wall Street," but it's a tough case to make -- Americans want big government go after Wall Street."

And they are not arguing that. Here is the evil, disgusting genius of Luntz. They argue that Dems want shackle the public to endless bailouts with this FinReg bill. Really disgusting.

I see Creature_NYC beat me to it. I was greeted with a 30 second ad this morning on the TeeVee which ominously told viewers here in Missouri that Democrats' Wall Street reform regulation will try to push permanent bailouts onto tax payers and to "not be deceived". "Tell Senator McCaskill to vote against," it said.

The party of get-out-lie-quick has hit the ground running.

Posted by: oh my on April 19, 2010 at 9:56 AM | PERMALINK

Illegal eavesdropping on citizens, no loss of personal freedom, improved health care, loss of personal freedom.

Obviously Obama should have implemented health care reform secretly.

Posted by: Mudge on April 19, 2010 at 10:01 AM | PERMALINK

The Wall Street bailouts and the health insurance reform process have illuminated the degree to which the rich and powerful are in control of the government and the rest of us are just along for the ride. Of course, we are mistrustful of the government's intentions when they are so clearly at odds with the "common good". The coming "reforms" of Social Security and Medicare will be another reminder of who our government listens to.

Posted by: cnmne on April 19, 2010 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

The Republican Plan:

1] Position the US government as ineffective, costly, immoral, and stupid.

2] Prove it every time they get elected.

Posted by: chrenson on April 19, 2010 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

There not trusting, and there's not trusting. First of all, there's Republicans in it, and they've been looking pretty crazy lately. Would you trust any enterprise where 40% of its leadership was crazy people?

Second, you don't ever want to trust government too much, because there's so much to gain from graft and corruption, and there's plenty of people who see that as a path to profit. So you've always got to keep an eye on them.

Posted by: dr2chase on April 19, 2010 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK
we're coming off an era in which Republican corruption, mismanagement, and incompetence made the government look pretty awful in the eyes of the American mainstream.

Which, for Republicans, is considered "Mission Accomplished."

It amazes me that so many people are so gullible that they'll elect into government people who don't want government to work, or to even exist.

Think about it:

Would you take your car to a mechanic who hates the automobile so much that he wants them all "drowned in a bathtub"?

Would you take you child to a doctor who thinks modern medicine is the problem, not the solution?

Yet millions of Americans will do the equivalent with their government. And when it fails, they turn around and say, "See! It failed!!"

Well, yeah, dumbshit. You ensured that it did.

Idiocy like that is why we can't have nice things ...

Posted by: Mark D on April 19, 2010 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

"30% of the public perceive their government as a "major threat" to their personal freedom,which is nearly double the number from seven years ago."

I wouldn't put too much stock in this. These are the same people who kept Bush's approval rating from falling to 5 percent, and the same people who are angry that McCain/Palin lost.

Essentially these folks have always and will continue to vote Republican every time. To the extent that they trusted the government six years ago, they were just expressing their support for a corrupt regime.

Posted by: Chris on April 19, 2010 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

I don't like this "do you trust government" question. Trust government how?

Posted by: Christopher on April 19, 2010 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

Another silly headline by a research center that need to justify its existence. These polls are so general that they should be ignored.
Do I trust the President?
Do I trust Mitch McConnell?
They are both the government!

Posted by: hornblower on April 19, 2010 at 10:26 AM | PERMALINK

The most interesting subset involved favorable ratings for various government agencies. The only one with a significant increase in its favorable score since 1997-98 was the IRS (9pct improvement)
Discuss.

Posted by: Art Hackett on April 19, 2010 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

It's amazing you think that after Katrina, warrantless wiretap searches, Gitmo, spying on peace groups, torture, the mismanaged wars and the bailouts that somehow just because the Dems' are in charge people will suddenly forget all that happened over the past eight years.

Trust has to be earned. It's not a given.

Posted by: Sean Scallon on April 19, 2010 at 10:35 AM | PERMALINK

I agree with Chris that a consistent 30% of Americans are Fox, Limbaugh, Beck regulars who are unreachable conservatives who would oppose Pres. Obama even if he personally parachuted into Pakistan and successfully captured bin Laden. They'd vote Republican if the KKK Grand Wizard was on the ballot.

Reagan planted the seed of government distrust and it's flourished with his comment about the 10 most frightening words "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you", something along that line anyway. Constant coverage of the "Tea Parties" and their every burp by the corporate media aids in mistrust too. Far too many Americans merely glance at the news with little thought or investigation. It is mind boggling that people vote in droves for candidates who hate government and set about seeing that it doesn't work as stated by Mark D.

Posted by: Kathryn on April 19, 2010 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

Remember, Obama has been a dismal failure in restoring my trust in government. Kowtowing to energy interests, funding the banks, letting its own officials get away with murder and torture.

I see a government that is accountable to no one, and protects the nation's elites while being either indifferent to or ineffectual at providing help to the citizens that make up its foundation.

Posted by: MNPundit on April 19, 2010 at 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

It makes me want to laugh. Are you seriously telling me that more people feel the government plans to curtail their personal freedom today than did 7 years ago, when Bush was rolling out the Total Information Awareness system, rewarding airlines that voluntarily disclosed personal information about their passengers without their permission, tapping Americans' phone calls and authorizing "sneak and peek" searches of Americans' homes while they were absent? Seriously?

Man, you people better get a handle on this quick. It's mostly a bunch of unfocused nuts now, but Republicans know there's not a hope in hell they could regain power on their governance chops - their governance reputation is ruined for a generation. All they've got is stirring up voter anger, but they've made no plans at all for getting it back under control if they form the next government. You might want to think about that.

Posted by: Mark on April 19, 2010 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

Two big reasons I can see as to why so many don't trust government:

Non-stop Republican nonsense that thwarts legislative progress on everything

Voters' propensity to want to believe their own set of facts - that goes for the left as well as the right.

Posted by: June on April 19, 2010 at 10:51 AM | PERMALINK

By all means, blame distrust of government on the Republicans.

Continue to propose one-size-fits-all, technocratic, centrally planned government solutions for all the problems that face our nation. Right up until November, if you would...

Posted by: Jana on April 19, 2010 at 10:56 AM | PERMALINK

....as opposed to...letting the electorate, who apparently is too busy or preoccupied to really grasp what is going on from day to day, decide what to do based on raw emotion?

Posted by: Mark on April 19, 2010 at 11:04 AM | PERMALINK

Jana, as opposed to proposing nothing at all, like the Republicans?

There's more than one channel on your television. I suggest you click around and educate yourself.

Posted by: chrenson on April 19, 2010 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

Jana, I think you hit on something. Yes, we would better off putting Progressive ideas into action and not, merely, try to co-opt RepuG Talking Points.

Posted by: berttheclock on April 19, 2010 at 11:13 AM | PERMALINK

This morning on NPR, Steve Inskeep interviewed the man who over saw the research. During the interview, Mr. Inskeep said two things of note that really illustrated the role the media played in these results.

First, he said that the "Republicans have won or at least are winning the rhetorical debate, they managed to define the issues in a surprising way given that they did not have the White House, and more people are accepting their version of events." How come more people are accepting Republican's versions of events? Would it have to do with all of the media, not just faux news, repeating Republican lies without fact checking them? What do you say to that Mr. Inskeep?

Second, "And the objections to health care reform actually got stronger even as the bill was compromised and, according to the Democrats, became less and less intrusive." Again, this is not just opinion by the Democrats, it is factual. If the media actually had done factual reporting, instead of "he said/she said" reporting, which resulted in lies and mis-truths being echoed without any fact checking about the claims, we might actually see different results today.

Unfortunately, the media will miss this greater observation and will look at the Tea Parties as the reason, instead of the constant repeating of lies and mis-truth by all media outlets.

Posted by: Greg Walters on April 19, 2010 at 11:25 AM | PERMALINK

It's amazing you think that after Katrina, warrantless wiretap searches, Gitmo, spying on peace groups, torture, the mismanaged wars and the bailouts that somehow just because the Dems are in charge people will suddenly forget all that happened over the past eight years.

Yeah, that's absolutely what's motivating the teabaggers. Deep concerns about the abuses of the Bush administration and avowals not to let it happen again.

Posted by: Mart on April 19, 2010 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

The Dem's distrust the government in the hands of Thugs, the Thugs distrust government in the hands of Dem's, the Libertarians distrust any government, and the teabaggers are a very confused lot of people. Who is left to trust government?

Posted by: canddieinnc on April 19, 2010 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

By all means, blame distrust of government on the Republicans.
Continue to propose one-size-fits-all, technocratic, centrally planned government solutions for all the problems that face our nation. Right up until November, if you would...
Posted by: Jana

People like Jana aren't honest libertarian skeptics keeping a vigilant eye on the government. They're rosy-eyed anarchists. They don't want government until they do, and by then it's too late.

The historian Kevin Baker feared that we are no longer far from the day when, like the Roman Senate in 27 bc, our Congress will take its last meaningful vote and turn over power to a military dictator. “In the end, we’ll beg for the coup,” he wrote.-Nemesis

Posted by: oh my on April 19, 2010 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

I'm another one who thought the poll questions were poorly framed - "trust" could mean anything to anybody. The one response that seemed to mean something was that 56% of the people are "frustrated with the government" and 20-something % "felt rage". That framing tells me soemthing I can understand. The government is not just the President; it includes the Congress and the dogcatcher. Count me in the 56%, and I'm leaving myself open for a little rage if things do not improve.

Posted by: Brownell on April 19, 2010 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

Sean is right: trust has to be earned. The meta theme of Reaganism was that government cannot be trusted to deal with complex economic and social problems and instead such problems must be solved either through markets or voluntary activity, or ignored altogether. Even Clinton bought into this, to some extent, in the 1990s with triangulation and saying that the era of big government is over. Of course, with Republican administrations, this theme tends to becomes self fulfilling through poor policy choices (e.g., unpaid for tax cuts), starvation budgets, and the appointment of individuals to government positions who are either prone to regulatory capture, hostile to the agencies that they are appointed to lead, or incompetent.

The election of Barack Obama has created an opportunity for the emergence of a new progressive consensus that holds that an active government can be a force for economic and social progress. But the only way this can become convincing for a majority of Americans is for the policies put in place last year and this year to work and to be reflected in broad-based improvement in the economy. This will take time, and frankly, a willingness by the Obama Administration and Democrats to keep pressing for sensible policy initiatives (financial reform, cap & trade, immigration, further progress in health care to deal with rising costs generally and Medicare in particular) in the face of persistent and cycnical Republican opposition.

It's important to remember that a sort of reverse dynamic to this was at work in the early 1980s. In late 1982 and 1983, with unemployment and inflation still high, Reagan's approval numbers were pretty bad, and from the vantage point of late 1982, he looked extremely vulnerable for reelection. It seems amazing in retrospect, but the election of Walter Mondale for President seemed eminently possible in 1982. But things turned around (although not as fast as we might remember; unemployment in November 1984 was 7.2%). Though much of that recovery, in my view, was due to sound monetary policy under Paul Volcker, Reagan (himself) and Reaganism (as a governing philosophy) got the credit, setting the stage for the "conservative consensus" that prevailed for a generation.

If the ecoonomy rebounds (which by itelf will work to increase the deficit by 25%-30% due to increased tax revenue), unemployment falls, health care reform kicks in and starts to work, no new bubbles arise, and the country doesn't get bogged down in Afghanistan and manages to contain Iran from serious mischief, then I believe a new progressive consensus will be solidiefied. And as a result a majority of the American people will come to have trust in the ability of an active government to deal with market failures and ensure an equitable distribution of opporutnity and income. But it will take time (and frankly some luck, too), and may not even be obvous until the end of a seocnd Obama administration.

Posted by: DavidinEvanston on April 19, 2010 at 8:56 PM | PERMALINK
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