Politics

Americans Still Trust Own Judgment More Than Politicians'

by Frank Newport

Both trust levels continue to drift downward

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans continue to have more trust in themselves to make judgments under the country's democratic system than they do in the men and women who are in political life, with 69% of Americans expressing "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of trust in the former, and 47% in the latter.

(Question 1) How Much Trust and Confidence Do You Have in General in Men and Women in Political Life in This Country Who Either Hold or Are Running for Public Office? (Question 2) More Generally, How Much Trust and Confidence Do You Have in the American People as a Whole When It Comes to Making Judgments Under Our Democratic System About the Issues Facing Our Country?

This year's readings on both measures are the lowest in Gallup's history of asking these questions, and reflect a continuing general downward drift in trust over the last three decades.

1974-2010 Trend: Americans Trust in Themselves and Politicians

When Gallup first asked both questions in April 1974, Congress was embroiled in the Watergate investigation that culminated in President Richard Nixon's resignation a few months later. Public sentiment about the men and women in political life and Americans' own judgment was significantly higher than it is today, at 68% and 83%, respectively. Trust in politicians is now 21 percentage points lower than it was then, and Americans' trust in themselves is 14 points lower.

Implications

These two questions speak to issues at the heart of the system of representative democracy in this country. The people of the United States are in ultimate charge of the political system, but they exercise that control indirectly for the most part, through electing their congressional representatives and the president. Despite this system of representation, Americans have consistently over the last 36 years expressed more trust in themselves to make judgments "under our democratic system about the issues facing our country" than they do in the men and women in political life who represent them.

Gallup's question does not define "men and women in political life" in any detail, so respondents may have answered it with state- and local-level politicians, as well as national politicians, in mind. Gallup data show that Americans are generally more positive about the political system at state and local levels than nationally. The question results may thus reflect a higher trust level than would be the case if the question had specified "national" politicians.

The question also includes a reference to men and women who are "running for" political office, which, in the current political election environment -- with its ubiquitous negative ads and personal attacks -- may have affected respondents' answers. And it would perhaps not be surprising to find Americans expressing more trust in themselves than in other people, regardless of who these others might be.

Still, the responses to these two questions suggest that, as far as the average American is concerned, politicians would do well to heed the sentiments of the average citizens they represent -- since Americans appear to trust their own judgment more than they do the judgment of their elected representatives.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 13-16, 2010, with a random sample of 1,019 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2009 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.

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