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New Pew Survey Finds Three-Quarters of Americans Don’t Trust the Government

January 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next — and this picks up on a theme Jeff just discussed with Al Gore — 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.

To put this in historical perspective, we are joined by Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.

Andy Kohut, thank you for being with us again.

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: Happy to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s another strand.

And you’re saying — did I understand you to say it’s independents, as well as Republicans?

ANDREW KOHUT: Right. Many of them are the independents who lean Republicans.

The Democrats are less of this view. But if we went back to the Bush years, the Democrats were more inclined to say than the Republicans that the government personally threatened them. Now, they were worried about different things. They were worried about warrantless wiretaps and the loss of personal freedoms in the war against terrorism.

But there’s kind of a regime effect, but the public both right and left really are quite worried that government is going to threaten what — the values and things that they hold …

JUDY WOODRUFF: And has this — how has this changed over time since you have been polling on this question?

ANDREW KOHUT: 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. Now …

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, by the way, Andy, we’re showing — I think this is a trust in government question, which is that other question that I wanted to ask you about.

ANDREW KOHUT: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re showing how that started out in the 1960s at a high level, and then plummeted.

ANDREW KOHUT: Yes.

I mean, really, what that 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, there’s some disconnect there.

And picking up on what Al Gore was saying a minute ago, that people — what — the way the system now works, with so much money, with money having so much of an influence, it will be interesting to see whether — to what extent that affects people’s views as well.

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think that people will — are at the boiling point when it comes to, we’re not getting — we’re not getting what we want out of Washington — quote, unquote — “Something’s got to give somewhere along the line.” Public patience is not endless.

But the issue of gerrymandering, the issue of money, there are all of these other factors that complicate things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Kohut, who has been watching these questions for years, and will continue to keep an eye on them, thank you.

ANDREW KOHUT: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, on our website, you can find a link to another recent Pew study, this one about the sandwich generation: middle-aged Americans who are helping support both aging parents and their grown-up children. You can read that on the Rundown.