April 11, 2019
Public trust in the government remains near historic lows. Only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%).
When the National Election Study began asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. Trust in government began eroding during the 1960s, amid the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the decline continued in the 1970s with the Watergate scandal and worsening economic struggles. Confidence in government recovered in the mid-1980s before falling again in the mid-1990s. But as the economy grew in the late 1990s so too did confidence in government. Public trust reached a three-decade high shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but declined quickly thereafter. Since 2007, the share saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has not surpassed 30%.
Currently, 21% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they can trust government, compared with 14% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Throughout Obama’s tenure, more Democrats than Republicans reported trusting the government, though that has flipped since Trump’s election. Since the 1970s, trust in government has been consistently higher among members of the party that controls the White House than among the opposition party. However, Republicans have been much more reactive than Democrats to changes in political power. Republicans have expressed much higher levels of trust during Republican than during Democratic presidencies, while Democrats’ attitudes have tended to be more consistent, regardless of which party controls the White House.
Historically, there have been modest differences between generational groups in trust in government and that remains the case today. Currently, 19% of Millennials (now ages 23-38) report trusting the government, similar to the shares of older generations who say the same. Trust in government remains at or near historically low levels across generational lines.
A downward trajectory in trust in government also is seen across racial and ethnic lines. Currently, white non-Hispanics, black non-Hispanics and Hispanics all express historically low levels of trust in government. During the Republican presidencies of Reagan and G.W. Bush more whites than blacks said they trusted the government to do the right thing. Conversely, during the Democratic administrations of Clinton and Obama blacks were more likely than whites to express trust in government.
Sources: Pew Research Center, National Election Studies, Gallup, ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, and CNN Polls. For party, generation and race/ethnicity analysis, selected datasets obtained from searches of the iPOLL Databank provided by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.