WHO DO YOU TRUST?
March 10 1998
Only a third of Americans think they can trust the government most or all of the time. That's better than the last couple of years. But scandals and partisan bickering have caused a new generation of cynical voters. Phil Ponce talks with Andy Kohut and the regional commentators about American attitudes, past present and future, towards state and federal government.
PHIL PONCE: According to a new poll from the Pew Research Center for the Public and the Press, public attitudes towards Washington have improved somewhat in the last several years. But only a third of Americans think they can trust the government most or all of the time. We get more on this and other poll findings from Andy Kohut, director of the center, and joining him tonight are NewsHour regular Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution, Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman, Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News, and Bob Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune. Welcome, everybody.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
January 23, 1998
Andrew Kohut joins Shields and Gigot in discussing the Starr investigation.
June 17, 1997
Our Presidential Historians analyze the impact of Watergate on American political history.
April 7, 1997
A recent study revealed that a majority of Americans do not trust the media.
March 24, 1997
Hedrick Smith reports on campaign finance abuses and the public mistrust it has created.
January 17, 1997
Andrew Kohut discusses the national mood prior to President Clinton's second inauguration.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the White House and Congress.
The Pew Research Center
Andy, if I could start with you, what are some of the key findings of the survey as far as the trends that pollsters have seen as far as trust in the government?
ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: Well, the big news in this survey is that spiraling distrust and hostility toward government that grew from the mid 80's to about 1994 seems to have reversed itself, or at least stopped. We had six measures in this survey that deal with government, the most important is shown on that chart, how much do you trust the government to do the right thing, and there's a little tick upward, as many as 36 percent or 39 percent, and that chart said they trust government to do the right thing. Four years ago it was half that. It was 21 percent. And for the first time we see a reversal of a pretty serious negative trend toward government that we had been measuring over that period of time.
More public trust comes with positive feelings about the state of the nation at large.
PHIL PONCE: And how does the up-tick in the trust in government dovetail with the national mood in other areas? What does your survey tell you about that?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think that's the second headline to come out of this survey, that people's attitudes about trust in government or distrust of government is not only about the workings of government, it's how the public feels about the state of the nation at large. We have two trend lines, one which measures trust in government, the other which measures ratings satisfaction with the state of the nation, and they're very similar. Over the past 30 years they've gone up and down with one another. First, they went down because of Watergate and Vietnam, then over the economic problems of the 70's and 80's, and in our view, and in our analysis now these numbers are being dragged down by the moral crisis or the concerns about honesty and ethics that faces the country. The American public doesn't feel good about the country because of its ethical problems, its problems with honesty and character, and it blames government. In a general sense, the distrust in government seems to be linked to that sentiment.
PHIL PONCE: And to follow up on the link, there is a connection between the government's view towards the kinds of things you're talking about and trust in government.
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, one of the most important links is distrust of or having a negative view of political leaders is the leading cause of distrust in government. And most of that negative view has to do with issues of honesty and ethics and telling the--politicians telling the truth to the public.
PHIL PONCE: Well, let's take a look at what your survey said about recent figures on those lines. What--back in October of 1997--here's a graph that explains it--take it away.
Confidence in government slips due to Washington scandals.
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, when we did this--the principle survey, we found this up-tick to 39 percent--we wondered in this environment of allegations about--and the investigation of the President and concerns about Monica Lewinsky, whether trust in governments--government had slipped as a consequence of that, and basically we saw very little difference. It will take something more than one more scandal in Washington and more allegations about Bill Clinton to reverse it--to reverse these very, very basic numbers--basic feelings that the American public has about their government and it has about the nation.
PHIL PONCE: And findings regarding how Americans view government?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, basically, the American public, we found, has a very temperate view of government. We didn't find a lot of anger. Only 12 percent said they're angry with the government. Most people said--
PHIL PONCE: But a high level of frustration--
High levels of frustration, but less anger.
ANDREW KOHUT: People say they're frustrated, and that's a lot different than anger--angry--that 12 percent who say they're angry contain many people who say they can countenance violence against the country. We don't have a crisis where there's so much distrust of the government that there's disrespect for laws, or less patriotism, or a countenance of law breaking. We're not in a crisis situation. The times are good; there's a lot of frustration with government.
PHIL PONCE: In spite of the frustration, what does your survey say about the kinds of things that government should be doing?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, one of the most important trends that we find in a survey is that support for an activist government remains very, very strong. It remains strong when we measure trend and opinion, back from 1964, the same percentage of people at today say that the government should see that no one goes without food and clothing; there is as much support for trying to do away with poverty as there was in the mid 60's, when we were about to embark upon the war on poverty and great liberalism and great government activism. And you can also see that in more contemporary issues. All of the--many of the initiatives or most of the initiatives that Bill Clinton has proposed, from hiring ten thousand new teachers to a patient bill of rights, which were all government programs, get 80 percent approval ratings. I mean, Bill Clinton understands a certain--the degree to which the public is willing to respond particularly on small bore issues to using government to solve problems.
PHIL PONCE: And, Andy, what does your research tell you about the reasons why people may dislike government?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, most important, when we ask people an open-ended question, the reason that really comes through is complaints about the bosses in government, the political leadership, and, as I said a little earlier, those are mostly concerns about ethical issues. Now, there's also the performance issue--government not doing a good job at what it does.
PHIL PONCE: Is that what you mean by critique of government?
Young people worry about the honesty and ethics of leaders.
ANDREW KOHUT: A critique of government and also government policies, but the most important issue here for the public, particularly for the young people, is their worries about the honesty and ethics of their political leaders. For older people it's criticisms of government performance. There's an important generation gap that relates to--relates to the way Vietnam and Watergate shaped American attitudes, according to this survey.
PHIL PONCE: Patrick McGuigan, picking up on the issue of the fact that there didn't seem to be much change in the public's impression of trust towards government from October of last year to February of this year, why do you think that is?
"It's morality and the culture."
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: I don't know. I think that the poll as a whole--the large--the larger poll, which I was able to read through today, is just fascinating in its depth and in some of the nuances that we just saw illustrated in those bar charts. I think citizens are reflecting in the current polls satisfaction with the state of the economy and for the most part with their own economic circumstances. But there is this profound unease that you just referred to about morality and politics, but I think it's more than that. It's morality and the culture. I'm not ashamed to say I'm a cultural conservative. I'd like to conserve the best things in our ethical and moral traditions, and I think citizens feel, they sense that those best things are endangered in the state of the culture that we're in now. And that's reflected in this data as well. On the one hand, they give the President some credit for a relatively stable economy, but they're profoundly uneasy about this man's behavior.
PHIL PONCE: Cynthia Tucker, is there a profound unease about the President's behavior in the poll results, as you look at them?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Well, I think that the reason that Americans' distrust of government has not gone into steep decline with these recent revelations is because the American people believed that they knew what Bill Clinton was about when they elected the first time in 1992. And what we have here are allegations of behavior that seems to reflect what they think that they knew about him already. So it comes as no great surprise. So, no, I don't think the American people are profoundly uneasy about recent allegations about Bill Clinton; however, I do think that there is a more general unease related to not just Bill Clinton's behavior in his personal life, but whether or not Bill Clinton and many other national leaders are too influenced by big money and campaign contributions, whether you can depend on political leaders to look you in the eye and tell you the whole truth, and I think that is not just Bill Clinton but many of our best known Washington leaders. And so I think that there is a general unease that has less to do with the recent allegations about President Clinton's behavior but more to do with what we believe we've seen as a slippage in the ethical values of government leaders over the last twenty to thirty years.
PHIL PONCE: Bob Kittle, why do you think there seems to be a slight increase, as Andy Kohut talked about, in the level of trust in government?
People want the power and resources to fight local problems.
ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: Well, I think to begin with, the sex scandal has not had its full impact yet, and so it's a little early to be making any definitive pronouncements about it. But I think the obvious answer is the people are feeling better because of the economy; they have more money to spend, and so they're a little more satisfied with their government. But I think the most interesting finding, certainly one of the most interesting findings in Mr. Kohut's research, was that Americans are much less distrustful of their state and local governments, that is, they seem to have more confidence in the ability of state and local governments to address the problems that they face. And I think that fits with the kind of moral discontent. We realize that the problems of crime and drugs and low ethical standards are not problems that an all-powerful federal government can solve, and people think it might be time for their local governments and their state governments to tackle these problems. And this would seem also to be kind of a natural evolution of thinking after the end of the Cold War. I think throughout the Cold War we had to rely on a strong federal government to keep it safe from the Soviet threat. Now that there's been a very sharp decline in the Soviet threat, I think people are not looking to Washington anymore to solve their problems. They want to solve their problems at home, and they like to have the resources and the power to do that.
PHIL PONCE: Lee Cullum, people looking more towards local answers to their problems, as opposed to looking to the Feds?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Yes, Phil, I think that's true. I think that Bob has a very good point there. I think that one thing that's going on is this: national politicians have become so accustomed to speaking to their publics only through television, only through mass mailing, and only through the message politicians are frantic to stay on message, terrified they might step on the message, and of course, the message is contrived. It's a matter of technique, and people are catching on to this. Local politicians are not as sophisticated, don't have as much money to spend, and I think they speak more directly to people than national politicians are doing. So I think that you have Americans feeling they haven't been spoken to by their national elected representatives in years. Therefore, that builds more unease with national institutions and greater ease with local government.
The Boomers are more skeptical and cynical.
PHIL PONCE: Patrick McGuigan, another thing that the polls seem to show is that--as far as unease is concerned, there seems to be the generational differences, the young people, the boomers, seem to be a little more skeptical or cynical towards government than the older generation. Why do you think that is?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: I don't know. My generation--people 45--in the 40's and younger--have a feeling that we didn't get the grounding in American traditions that the generations ahead of us did, and this problem is, if anything, exacerbated by the television age, by the diversity, if you will, of the media spectrum. There are so many ways to receive information we don't have as many common cultural reference points. I know I for one in the last presidential election I didn't think that Bob Dole was perfect by any means but I was hoping that the World War II generation, which as a historian I regard as the greatest generation in our history since the founding, I kept hoping that they would save us or rescue us one more time, and it didn't work out that way. I'm concerned about the lack of rootedness in what we call Judeo Christian traditions of the contemporary rising generation of political leadership.
PHIL PONCE: Cynthia Tucker, what's your take on the difference in generations and how they look at government?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, it is interesting to me that in the survey we baby boomers are regarded as young. I'm not sure that I can agree with that. But it is certainly true that those of us who came of age with Vietnam and Watergate have a very different view of government. I mean, we were taught fairly early that government leaders would look us in the face and tell us a lie. And it has been hard for us to recover from that. It's also true, however, that the news media give us much, much more information on the personal failings and foibles of our leaders than the older generation grew up with. You know, Jackie Kennedy created Camelot with the aid of a journalist who felt favorably toward the Kennedy administration. Back in an earlier generation the news media felt it among their duties to help guard the public images of leaders and politicians. That's no longer true. We're constantly inundated with news of the failings of our government leaders and it is very hard to have anything but cynicism when we're constantly confronted with the little lies and the little betrayals.
A permanent sense of confidence?
PHIL PONCE: I'm going to have to end it with Andy. Andy, your assessment as a pollster, how do you know when a slight change like this in the past few years is a blip, or whether it's something that's permanent?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, we don't know, but what we see here was the potential for those numbers to begin to resemble the satisfaction that people had with their own lives, but the scandal in Washington, the real impact of the scandal over Washington is that it may have thwarted President Clinton's ability to make Americans feel better about the country or for the country to have a turnaround in views about government and the state of the nation, consistent with a turnaround in how they view their own lives. And so we can only wait and see whether the scandal will disappear and the public will have a better view of the country, or whether those numbers will go back to the way they were. My guess is that we'll probably see no change for some time.
PHIL PONCE: And that's where we're going to have to leave it. Thank you all very much.