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Below the Surface, Surprising Trust in Government

- December 26, 2011

This post is coauthored with my Vanderbilt colleague Marc Hetherington:

The politics of 2011 have been dominated by the fruitless search for a “grand bargain” to rein in the federal budget deficit, primarily by curtailing government spending. Much of the surface appeal of budget-cutting stems from a belief that citizens have become so disenchanted with their government that they will tolerate, and perhaps even embrace, having it do less. A recent New York Times poll found “Americans’ distrust of government at its highest level ever,” with only 10% saying they trusted the government in Washington to do what is right most of the time or always. The corresponding figure when Lyndon Johnson was president was around 70%.

The erosion of public trust in government is both real and politically consequential. However, the politics of deficit reduction may hinge less on Americans’ attitudes about government in the abstract than on their attitudes about the specific agencies and activities that would actually be on the chopping block in any major budget-cutting deal. With its broad focus on “the government in Washington,” the survey question employed in that New York Times poll—and in virtually all of the polling and scholarship on trust in government in the past half-century—turns out to provide a very misleading picture of citizens’ attitudes about government considered more concretely, piece by piece. Would-be budget-cutters will have to grapple with the fact that Americans have much more confidence in specific federal agencies than they have in “the government” as a whole.

Political scientists have long recognized that Americans are much more enthusiastic about specific politicians and programs than they are about the government in general. They are much more likely to approve of their own member of Congress than of Congress as a whole. And even most conservatives oppose cutting spending on specific  government programs, even while they strongly support overall cuts in government spending.

A similar divergence appears in citizens’ trust in government. When the Vanderbilt Poll asked a random sample of Tennesseans the familiar generic trust question in early November, only 15% said they trust “the government in Washington” to do what is right most of the time or just about always. Almost twice as many, 28%, said they never trust the government to do what is right.

However, when asked a moment later about some specific federal agencies, the same survey respondents expressed much more trust—even in parts of the government that might be considered highly controversial in a solidly red state like Tennessee. For example, 38% said they trust the Department of Health and Human Services, the department that will play the central role in implementing President Obama’s controversial health care reform plan.  Although 38% might not sound that high, it is about the same percentage of Americans who said they trusted the government at the end of Ronald Reagan’s term in office.

The same proportion, 38%, said they trust the Environmental Protection Agency, a frequent target of conservative criticism for excessive regulatory zeal. Only 15% said they never trust the EPA, and even fewer said they never trust HHS. Thus, even these controversial federal agencies elicited only about half as much distrust, and more than twice as much trust, as “the government in Washington.”

The congressional supercommittee’s failure to agree on a deficit reduction deal is supposed to trigger large automatic spending cuts, half from domestic programs like EPA and HHS and half from the Pentagon. Cuts to the Pentagon budget, in particular, will likely face substantial public opposition because trust in this part of the government is particularly high.  49% of Tennesseans said they trust the Department of Defense to do what is right most of the time or almost always, while only 7% said they never trust it. In light of these results, it is little wonder that some members of Congress are already scrambling to renege on the $600 billion in defense budget cuts they’d previously voted to include in the fallback plan for deficit reduction.

Today, politicians often treat “government” as a dirty word. Not even liberal Democrats have much positive to say about the government in Washington, so perhaps it should not be surprising that citizens sound equally cynical. However, it would be a significant mistake for political leaders to take that public cynicism too literally. Looking below the surface reveals a surprising degree of public trust, even in Tennessee, in the specific agencies that make up the federal government. Any budget deal that decimates those agencies will have to be justified on some other grounds.