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Discontent with Government Grows as Candidates Prepare for Primaries

April 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Anger toward government is on the rise, as candidates across the country kick their primary campaigns into gear. Margaret Warner talks to Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, about a new poll showing dwindling satisfaction with U.S. leadership.
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MARGARET WARNER: Distrust, discontent, anger, partisan rancor — that’s the headline on an extensive new survey about the public’s perception of their government. In a poll of more than 2,500 Americans between mid-March and mid-April, the Pew Research Center finds trust in Washington to be at its second-lowest point in half-a-century.

We get more now from all this — on all this from the center’s director, Andrew Kohut. And, Andrew, Andy, welcome back. Start with this level of rancor and distrust toward government. How bad is it?

ANDREW KOHUT, director, Pew Research Center: Well, it’s one of the low points of the past 40 years. Over in the — in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate eras, from the ’70s onwards, Americans are generally skeptical about government, often distrustful. But, with 22 percent of Americans saying they trust government to do what’s right all or most of the time, you’re at the level of the mid-1990s. You’re at the level, close to the level of the late ’70s, the Jimmy Carter — let’s call it the Jimmy Carter malaise era.

There’s an extraordinary set of opinions related to this. People are angry at Congress at record levels. Sixty-five percent say they have an unfavorable view of Congress. That’s the lowest number we have ever achieved. Both political parties get low favorability ratings. Federal departments of government, both agencies and departments, get much lower ratings than they did 10 years ago. It’s broad-based.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you poll on a regular basis. Shorten the time frame. How do these feelings compare to the way they were just, say, January of last year, just before Barack Obama became president?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, there was actually a little spike in trust in government at that point. People were feeling pretty good. But a lot of things happened over this period, what we term a perfect storm which led to this spike in distrust, with 76 percent saying, no, they — I don’t trust them to do it right at all.

First of all, we have a continuing bad economy and dissatisfaction with the state of the nation. We have Republican backlash. We had health care reform, where calling for the issue of too much government got very high-profile. And, generally, we have so much discontent with Washington, that it’s poisoned the well for trust in government. So, a lot has happened over the course of just that one short year.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, last week, The New York Times did a poll, ran a poll of just people who are affiliated with or support the Tea Party movement. And they found a high level of anger — Judy referred to that in introducing our segment — particularly among Tea Party supporters. What do you find among the population as a whole on that front?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, what is interesting, over — over this long period of time, where there’s more distrust, the level of — most people say they’re frustrated with government. And it’s about comparable to what we saw 10, 15 years ago

MARGARET WARNER: So, that’s a pretty steady…

ANDREW KOHUT: Pretty steady sentiment. But we have seen the small percentage of people who are angry with government go from 12 percent in 1997 to 21 percent currently. We also have other related statistics among small blocs of Americans. Thirty percent say the government threatens my civil liberties or my personal freedoms. And, so, there is segment — there’s this growth in the segment of people who are really — who are really pretty edgy with government. I don’t know how else to put it.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, as we know, today is the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. Now, President Clinton, former President Clinton, said last week — and he was really talking about rhetoric, not about how people feel — but that he found the climate was similar to the pre-Oklahoma City bombing of ’94. Do you find that in people’s feelings about government?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think it’s very tempting to say that the poll findings here are a measure of the degree of dangerous extremism, but I think you have to take some pause. First of all, 99.999 percent of these people who say they’re angry are not violent and disposed to violence. Secondly, people are entitled to be angry and to express angry opinions. The real problem, however, is, there’s now a larger audience for emotional, radical statements about government. And that can unsettle the unsettled. So, I would say it’s really hard to parse that issue.

MARGARET WARNER: And, so, I know predictions are very difficult. And I’m not really asking you to predict, but what can you glean from all this data in here that might impact the November elections? I mean, you said both parties come in for it in this. But what can you tell?

ANDREW KOHUT: I — well, what we see is that the independents, who are the swing voters, those — are most — a segment of them who are most energized are those who are frustrated with government. And the people who are frustrated with government are leaning Republican very heavily at this point in time. The problem is, with so much discontent about both parties, don’t take anything for granted right now — too early.

MARGARET WARNER: But you’re saying they say they’re more motivated to vote?

ANDREW KOHUT: Clearly, a relationship between frustration with government and voting motivation.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, we shall see. Andy Kohut, thank you.

ANDREW KOHUT: You’re welcome.