NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Americans Buck Trend, Trust Government

November 7, 2001

Within weeks of the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of people who said they trusted the government to do what is right most of the time hit its highest level in 30 years. At the same time, 52 percent still favor smaller government providing fewer services (although the percentage favoring a bigger government providing more services jumped from 32 to 43).

  • Fifty-five percent in a New York Times/CBS News poll said they trust the government to do what is right most of the time.
  • That represented a 22 point rise in trust -- whereas during the Gulf War, trust in government went up only seven percentage points according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll.
  • While pollsters are used to presidential approval ratings going up and down, trust in government has been much less volatile.

When public opinion surveys began testing trust in government in the 1950s, three-quarters of Americans responded they expected the government to do a good job -- one of the highest levels in the world. Beginning in the early 1970s, that began dropping, hitting one in four by 1980 and sitting at 26 percent as recently as 1998.

Distrust of government is pervasive in all industrialized nations, says one theory, and goes hand in hand with democratization. According to Texas A&M University historian C.W. Brands, except for periods of war -- like now -- Americans have always had high levels of mistrust of government.

Source: Alexander Stille, "Suddenly, Americans Trust Uncle Sam," New York Times, November 3, 2001.


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