As election approaches, poll shows most Americans don’t trust government

Published 8:15 am Wednesday, October 19, 2016

As the November election approaches, recent polls show that not only do voters mistrust the two major presidential candidates, but they also have little confidence in their government.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center is cause for particular alarm. The poll shows that only 19 percent of Americans trust their government. The figure was close to 80 percent in 1958, so this latest figure represents a jaw-dropping 75 percent decline in the past 60 or so years.

Only 20% would describe government programs as being well-run. And elected officials are held in such low regard that 55% of the public says “ordinary Americans” would do a better job of solving national problems.

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Americans are harshly critical of elected officials. The public views politicians as more selfish and considerably less honest than ordinary Americans. Just 29% say that “honest” describes elected officials very or fairly well, a much smaller share than those who describe the average American as honest (69%).

While negative opinions of politicians are not new, the perception that elected officials don’t care about what people think is now held more widely than it has been in recent years. Today, 74% say this, compared with a narrower 55% majority who said the same in 2000.

Although more than half disapproved of the job the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs are doing, Americans don’t hate everything about government. A majority of people in both parties gave high marks to the Pentagon, the FBI, the Social Security Administration and even the Postal Service. A sizable majority said the government is doing a good job of protecting the nation from terrorism, responding to natural disasters and keeping food and medicine safe.

What accounts for this outpouring of discontent by Americans toward their government? After all, the recession is over, the economy is growing, and job losses have slowed dramatically in the last year. But overall distrust has been permanently scared since the early 1970s, and periods of recession and high unemployment depress public trust in government.

There is no shortage of reasons for the evaporation of trust in government. A starting point might be the pursuit of overseas wars, undeclared by Congress, starting with Vietnam. History now reveals that the government made a series of terrible decisions about that war, and its end could only be described as a defeat for our nation. Today, despite the dire predictions of previous governments, Vietnam has become a desired tourist destination.

We honor those who served in that war, of course, because they were sincere in their efforts to serve the nation. It was leadership that failed, not those who served.

The lessons of Vietnam did not deter our efforts to influence outcomes in Africa and the Mideast, and today we are embroiled in wars that seem to have no reasonable outcomes. The public sees this, and the huge debts and human sacrifices that have followed. They have not been confidence-builders.

Then there are the billions of dollars in government debt that is piling up, with current politicians deferring the consequences to some future generation of taxpayers. Added to this are continuing failures in government policies that are supposed to competently deal with issues such as immigration and medical care. They aren’t working well, and people know it. They also know that politicians manage to protect themselves from adverse consequences.

A pronounced and sustained distrust of government and its elected officials should do more than worry Americans and their leaders. It should effect change. But nothing too major, please, since Americans think the government, in some key areas, is doing an acceptable job.

Our hope is that the next president can lead a turnaround.