July | August 2017


It’s Complicated: Americans’ Relationship with the Federal
Government Goes Beyond Distrust

by Carroll Doherty
Ask some Americans about the federal government and they bluntly describe its flaws and failings. Ask them about what the government should do—and how it actually performs—and they tell a very different story.
A national survey by Pew Research Center, based on more than 6,000 interviews conducted last fall, found that the public has a complicated relationship with its government. At a general level, trust in government is low, frustration is high, and there is broad sense that the government is in dire need of reform.
Just 19 percent said they could trust the federal government always or most of the time, among the lowest figures in surveys dating back more than half a century. An equally low share, just 20 percent, said the federal government does a good job of running its programs.
At the same time, Americans see a need for government in many realms—from defending the country against terrorism and responding to natural disasters to maintaining the nation’s infrastructure. The size and role of government remains politically divisive; most Republicans prefer a smaller government with fewer services, while most Democrats favor larger government with more generous services. But majorities in both parties said the federal government should have a major role in most of the 13 issues asked about on the survey.
Moreover, despite the harsh criticisms of the federal government at a general level, most Americans said it does well in addressing many of those same areas. Of 13 government functional areas tested, the balance of opinion about government performance is more positive than negative in 10.
So what are federal and state government officials to make of these seemingly contradictory sentiments?
Several themes emerge in the data. Plummeting public trust in the federal government has been accompanied by a growing skepticism that government is run for the benefit of all Americans. Since the 1960s, as public trust in government has fallen, so too has the belief that the government is “run for the benefit of all the people.” In fact, these two attitudes have followed nearly identical trajectories over the past 50-plus years. In the survey, just 19 percent said the government is run for the benefit of all—the same share that trusts the government at least most of the time—while 76 percent said government “is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.”
The public’s deep frustration with politics is a factor in its generally negative opinions of government. To be sure, negative opinions about politics and politicians are hardly new—for years, majorities have had low regard for elected officials. But in the current environment, distaste for politics has taken on an especially sharp edge.
In politics today, just 25 percent of the public said “their side” has been winning more often than it has been losing. More than twice as many—64 percent—said their side more often lost than won. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who feel like their side is losing in politics have more critical views of government than those who do not.
Finally, while it may seem obvious, performance matters. While the federal government receives positive marks in many areas, it gets its lowest ratings for its handling of highly visible issues such as poverty and immigration. Just 36 percent said the federal government has done a good job helping people get out of poverty, and even fewer—just 28 percent—think it has done well in managing the immigration system.
Opinions about government performance—positive or negative—are associated with people’s overall views of government. But high-profile government scandals and crises may have greater impact on these attitudes than the perception that government is doing well in less publicized day-to-day functions.
A comprehensive report on the survey findings, “Beyond Distrust: How American’s View Their Government,” is available on Pew Research Center’s website, pewresearch.org.
About the Author
Carroll Doherty is director of political research at Pew Research Center. He plays a leading role in developing the center’s research agenda and overseeing editorial content about long-term trends in political values, U.S. views on policy issues and priorities, and political knowledge and news interest.