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Severe Disaffection: Seventy-five Percent of US Citizens Don't Trust Government

A new survey from the Pew Research Center finds the nation is increasingly distrustful of the federal government: 73 percent don't have faith that lawmakers – members of Congress in particular – will do the right thing. Judy Woodruff asks Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, for more details and historical context. – PBS Newshour

Dominant Social Theme: This has been going on for a long time and is nothing new. When the economy improves, people will feel better.

Free-Market Analysis: The Pew Survey has found that three-quarters of the United States population doesn't trust government but for the Public Broadcasting System, it's a partisan issue and also "business as usual."

From our point of view, it is not, of course. It is a manifestation of a larger disaffection that has been exacerbated by what we call the Internet Reformation. The Internet allows people to understand their world in ways they didn't before and tends to put discontent into a larger perspective.

Whereas before, people might have been more apt to blame themselves or their circumstances for their troubles, now they may see their dilemmas as part of a larger systemic issue. But the nation's media gatekeepers like PBS continue to focus on such issues as they have in the past, mainly through the lens of the two-party political system. This in a sense trivializes the growing discontent and misinterprets it, as well.

In a transcript of a discussion of the findings, Judy Woodruff of PBS, the US public news organization, positioned the issue as one where people felt they were "not getting what they want out of government."

She and Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, never mentioned the Internet's impact at all. Not once.

Nor did they mention the full import of these statistics. If 75 percent of another country's population were disaffected with government, that would be seen as a significant statement about what had obviously gone wrong. But US mainstream media persists in seeing the issue in a parochial way. Here's more from the transcript:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next ... a new survey from the Pew Research Center finds the nation increasingly distrustful of the federal government. The findings released today show that about one-quarter of Americans trust government to do the right thing always or most of the time. A whopping 73 percent don't. And those surveyed blame members of Congress. Asked if the political system can work, 56 percent responded that lawmakers are the problem, and 32 percent disagreed.

So, Andy, this survey found that not only do people not have a high regard for the federal government; they – you found that a majority think the federal government actually threatens their personal rights.

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes. We have – for the first time since we have been asking this question, we have a majority, 53 percent, saying that they feel personally threatened, their rights are personally threatened by the government. Now, this is mostly being led by a trend among Republicans, especially conservative Republicans. Among conservative Republicans, that percentage is 76 percent.

But it's a really very powerful attitude. It has to do with worries on the right and the middle as well that the government is encroaching on them. Gun control is part of their worries. I think you go back to Obamacare, many people complaining the government is telling me that I have that to buy health insurance. They don't have the right to do this.

So this issue of the power of government, the role of government is certainly part of that. Now, this is different than distrust in government. It's certainly a part of it, but it's one particular element. ...

Well, it's been an up-and-down thing. And it relates to the things that are going on and the issues that are in play ... what the chart shows is that distrust in government has been endemic since the end of the 1960s, the Vietnam/post-Watergate era. It's largely been most people saying that they can't trust government. We have had a number of factors. People say – our studies show that trust in government falls when the economy is difficult and people don't think that government's effective in dealing with it.

They fall at times of unpopular wars, Vietnam, Iraq. And now I think the fall, the tumble and the concern here with government is gridlock. People are very concerned that government isn't getting anywhere. I mean, two statistics really stand out to me from this election.

Only 25 percent have a favorable view of Congress; 90 percent of the people who ran for reelection got reelected. And that is the nature – that's the source of the frustration.

All the proverbial bases are touched here. The one that stands out the most, perhaps, is the idea that people's REAL frustration is government gridlock.

The implication is that people are not frustrated with the system but government response to it. If government officials would only react in a more statesmanlike and pro-active way, people would be more forgiving of the political system and begin to back it again.

In fact, many surveys show support for Congress stands around 10 percent, an incredible number for a representative democracy and one that signals enormous disaffection. Three-quarters of US citizens don't trust the US government and some 90 percent don't trust Congress.

Such figures are not discussed every day, for obvious reasons. But bear them in mind when watching or reading the mainstream media to get a sense of just how disconnected modern political policy is from the actuality of voter sentiment.

In fact, most voters, if asked about their belief systems without being "pushed" in one way or another, would probably indicate a preference to be left alone by government for the most part. Many voters, if allowed to express their sentiments fully, would express doubt about Washington's many foreign wars and, generally, the evolution of the US "empire" both at home and abroad.

These sentiments are not usually expressed, however; certainly they are not presented by the mainstream media. Instead, these points of view are minimized or simply not presented at all.

Both Kohut and Woodruff provide us with examples of how the nation's growing discontent can be minimized rhetorically and misdiagnosed so as to present it as a political rather than cultural problem.

In this they are doing a service to the larger power elite that has created regulatory democracy with all of its flaws and militaristic adventurism. The idea is surely that larger electoral doubts about the system ought not to be voiced too enthusiastically for fear they will be prove contagious.

But as the Pew survey shows, such damage control has its limits. When a system is failing as profoundly as the current one is foundering, it ceases to be an issue that can be controlled by promotional "spin."

The issues underlying the Pew survey are quite serious and abiding. They represent a profound disconnect between the US electorate and the political system that purports to speak for them. The situation, we would suspect, is similar in Europe and even in Britain.


When sociopolitical systems diverge so profoundly from the cultures they are supposed to serve – and do so for decades at a time – we would argue that trouble is not far behind.

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