Low Trust in Federal Government Rivals Watergate Era Levels

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Trust in state, local governments holding steady

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- A high degree of public trust in elected leaders is one of the basic underpinnings of representative government. Gallup's annual Governance survey shows that trust in the federal government has continued to decrease this year after showing noticeable signs of decline the past two years. Now, Americans generally express less trust in the federal government than at any point in the past decade, and trust in many federal government institutions is now lower than it was during the Watergate era, generally recognized as the low point in American history for trust in government.

Gallup has asked about trust in government since 1972 and has done so on a regular basis for the past 10 years, including each September since 2001. Gallup conducted this year's poll Sept. 14-16 and found the following: 

  • Barely half of Americans, 51%, say they have a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in the federal government to handle international problems. While this percentage is not appreciably different from what Gallup has found at other points within the past year, it is the lowest single measurement ever obtained on this question.
  • Less than half of Americans, 47%, now have at least a fair amount of trust in the federal government to handle domestic problems. Gallup found a sub-50% reading on this measure only one other time, in 1976. (Gallup did not ask this question between 1977 and 1997, and it is possible that lower readings than today's reading could have been obtained during this period.)
  • Given President George W. Bush's flagging approval ratings, it comes as no surprise that trust in the executive branch of government is on the low end of the historical spectrum. In fact, the 43% who now express trust in the executive branch is only slightly better than the 40% who did so in April 1974, four months before Richard Nixon resigned as president amid the Watergate scandal.
  • Trust in the legislative branch of the federal government continues to erode, dropping six percentage points in each of the last two years (from 62% in 2005 to 50% today). The current level of trust in Congress is significantly lower than any other measurement Gallup has obtained.
  • The candidates running for president in 2008 will be trying to win over a skeptical public. Just 55% of Americans express trust in the "men and women in political life in this country who either hold or are running for public office." That matches the low Gallup found in 2001.
  • Americans continue to express a high -- but diminished level -- of trust in the "American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system about issues facing the country." Currently, 70% of Americans trust the public's ability to perform its role in a democratic government, which is down from 78% two years ago when it was last asked, and significantly lower than any other reading Gallup has taken.
  • The one part of the federal government that has been able to maintain public confidence is the judicial branch headed by the Supreme Court. Sixty-nine percent of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the judicial branch, in line with what Gallup has observed since 2003.

The poll indicates that the lack of trust seems to be directed primarily at the federal government. There has been no observable decline of public trust in state and local governments. Sixty-seven percent of Americans now express trust in their state government, matching the levels of 2004 and 2005. Sixty-nine percent also trust their local government, similar to what Gallup has found since 2001.

Return to Watergate?

There have been two watershed events in terms of public trust in government in the past four decades. The first was the Watergate scandal in 1972-1974, which shook public trust in government and eventually led to Nixon's resignation as president. The second was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which spawned a nationwide rally behind government leaders and produced record high approval ratings and levels of trust in government.

The table shows where trust in the federal government stood in April 1974 (four months before Nixon left office), where it was following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and where it is now. (The trust items were asked at different times post-Sept. 11, some in October 2001, some in February 2001, and some in September 2002. The table shows the high point for each item between September 2001 and September 2002.)

Historical Trust in the Federal Government
Gallup Polls 1974, 2001-2002, 2007

 

Apr 1974

Sep 2001-Sep 2002
High Point

 

Sep 2007

%

%

%

Handling international problems

73

83

51

Handling domestic problems

51

77

47

The executive branch

40

72

43

The judicial branch

71

75

69

The legislative branch

68

67

50

Men/Women in political life

68

60

55

The American people

83

78

70

The table makes clear that trust in government now rivals the low ebb during the Watergate era. In fact, most items are significantly lower today than they were in 1974, though the decline in trust at that time was mostly limited to ratings of the executive branch and the federal government's ability to handle domestic problems.

Clearly, trust has dropped dramatically on most of these items compared to where it stood during the post-Sept. 11 rally. In particular, the ratings of the public's trust in the executive branch and the federal government's ability to deal with international and domestic problems have fallen off by about 30 percentage points in the past six years.   

Although such high levels of trust as existed in 2001-2002 would be difficult to sustain, the recent declines suggest much more than a return to "normal" trust levels. For example, trust in the executive branch today is down 20 points from its immediate pre-Sept. 11 measure of 63%. There have also been significant drops from in the public's trust in the federal government to deal with international problems (down 17 points from the 68% pre-Sept. 11 measurement) and domestic problems (down 13 points).

There are myriad reasons to explain the low levels of trust in the federal government. Some reasons include an ongoing war in Iraq for which the end seems nowhere in sight; criticisms of some of the methods the Bush administration used in its attempts to prevent terrorism; and a rash of scandals involving members of Congress that helped push Republicans out of power. Additional reasons include a contentious relationship between the Democratic Congress and the Republican president that has produced little in the way of substantive legislation on key issues facing the country this year and economic uncertainty exemplified by a volatile stock market and problems in the housing market -- to name a few.

Of course, one of the lessons of the Watergate era is that the American system of government is resilient enough that it can withstand low levels of trust in government. But trust in government is not necessarily easy to restore, and the conditions likely behind the decline in trust seem unlikely to improve substantially in the near term. To some extent, the 2008 election campaign may be the kind of fresh start the public requires to regain its trust in the federal government.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,010 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 14-16, 2007. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. 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.

11. Now I'd like to ask you several questions about our governmental system. First, how much trust and confidence do you have in our federal government in Washington when it comes to handling [ITEMS READ IN ORDER] -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

A. International Problems

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

8

43

34

13

1

 

 

 

 

 

2007 Feb 1-4

7

46

36

10

1

2006 Sep 7-10

13

39

33

14

1

2006 Feb 6-9

10

49

31

8

2

2005 Sep 12-15

14

42

33

11

*

2005 Feb 7-10

14

48

31

7

*

2004 Sep 13-15

18

45

28

8

1

2004 Feb 9-12

14

48

29

9

*

2003 Sep 8-10

16

47

27

9

1

2003 Jul 18-20

17

52

25

5

1

2003 Feb 3-6

17

56

20

6

1

2002 Sep 5-8

18

53

22

6

1

2002 Jun 17-19

21

54

18

6

1

2002 Feb 4-6

21

60

14

4

1

2001 Oct 11-14

36

47

13

3

1

2001 Sep 7-10

14

54

25

6

1

2001 Feb 1-4

12

63

19

4

2

2000 Jul 6-9

17

55

21

6

1

2000 May 18-21

8

45

34

12

1

1998 Dec 28-29

9

52

30

7

2

1997 May 30-Jun 1

10

58

23

7

2

1976 Jun

8

48

33

7

4

1974 Apr

24

49

18

4

3

1972 May

20

55

20

2

4

Q.11 CONTINUED

B. Domestic Problems

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

6

41

38

14

1

 

 

 

 

 

2007 Feb 1-4

8

44

38

10

1

2006 Sep 7-10

8

44

34

13

1

2006 Feb 6-9

8

45

36

10

1

2005 Sep 12-15

10

43

35

11

1

2005 Feb 7-10

9

47

35

8

1

2004 Sep 13-15

13

48

31

7

1

2004 Feb 9-12

9

50

30

10

1

2003 Sep 8-10

9

49

32

9

1

2003 Jul 18-20

14

50

29

7

*

2003 Feb 3-6

11

52

28

7

2

2002 Sep 5-8

11

52

28

7

2

2002 Jun 17-19

13

54

23

8

2

2002 Feb 4-6

12

59

23

5

1

2001 Oct 11-14

24

53

17

4

2

2001 Sep 7-10

6

54

31

8

1

2001 Feb 1-4

7

56

28

8

1

2000 Jul 6-9

10

48

30

10

2

2000 May 18-21

11

54

26

7

2

1998 Dec 28-29

11

54

26

7

2

1997 May 30-Jun 1

6

45

36

11

2

1976 Jun

5

44

42

7

3

1974 Apr

9

42

36

8

4

1972 May

11

59

26

3

2

12. As you know, our federal government is made up of three branches: an Executive branch, headed by the President: a Judicial branch, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court: and a Legislative branch, made up of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. First, let me ask you how much trust and confidence you have at this time in the Executive branch headed by the President, the Judicial branch headed by the US Supreme Court, and the Legislative branch, consisting of the US Senate and House of Representatives -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

A. The Executive branch headed by the President

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

15

28

32

24

1

 

 

 

 

 

2006 Sep 7-10

15

31

28

24

1

2005 Sep 12-15

19

33

30

18

*

2004 Sep 13-15

31

27

25

16

1

2003 Sep 8-10

25

35

26

14

*

2002 Sep 5-8

28

44

20

7

1

2001 Sep 7-10

21

42

28

8

1

2000 Jul 6-9

18

47

23

11

1

1999 Feb 4-8

21

43

24

11

1

1998 Dec 28-29

24

39

23

12

2

1997 May 30-Jun 1

13

49

27

9

2

1976 Jun

13

45

30

9

4

1974 Apr

12

28

36

20

3

1972 May

24

49

20

4

2

Q.12 CONTINUED

B. The Judicial branch, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

15

54

23

6

1

 

 

 

 

 

2006 Sep 7-10

15

54

21

7

3

2005 Sep 12-15

13

55

25

6

1

2004 Sep 13-15

14

51

27

6

2

2003 Sep 8-10

13

54

27

5

1

2002 Sep 5-8

17

58

18

5

2

2001 Sep 7-10

17

57

20

4

2

2000 Jul 6-9

23

52

18

6

1

1999 Feb 4-8

29

51

13

5

2

1998 Dec 28-29

27

51

16

4

2

1997 May 30-Jun 1

19

52

22

5

2

1976 Jun

16

47

26

6

4

1974 Apr

17

54

20

5

5

1972 May

17

49

24

7

4

C. The Legislative branch, consisting of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

5

45

36

12

1

 

 

 

 

 

2006 Sep 7-10

6

50

31

10

2

2005 Sep 12-15

8

54

31

6

1

2004 Sep 13-15

7

53

33

6

1

2003 Sep 8-10

8

55

31

5

1

2002 Sep 5-8

9

58

26

6

1

2001 Sep 7-10

7

58

28

6

1

2000 Jul 6-9

11

57

24

7

1

1999 Feb 4-8

8

49

34

7

2

1998 Dec 28-29

13

48

30

7

2

1997 May 30-Jun 1

6

48

36

8

2

1976 Jun

9

52

31

6

4

1974 Apr

13

55

24

4

4

1972 May

13

58

22

3

3

13. How much trust and confidence do you have in the government of the state where you live when it comes to handling state problems -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

18

49

23

9

1

 

 

 

 

 

2005 Sep 12-15

17

50

26

7

*

2004 Sep 13-15

16

51

24

8

1

2003 Sep 8-10

12

41

34

12

1

2001 Sep 7-10

17

48

27

7

1

1998 Dec 28-29

29

51

15

4

1

1997 May 30-Jun 1

18

50

25

6

1

1976 Jun

13

59

19

7

2

1974 Apr

16

59

17

3

4

1972 May

15

48

27

6

3

14. And how much trust and confidence do you have in the local governments in the area where you live when it comes to handling local problems -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

           

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

22

47

19

10

2

 

 

 

 

 

2005 Sep 12-15

23

47

23

7

*

2004 Sep 13-15

21

47

24

7

1

2003 Sep 8-10

18

50

23

8

1

2001 Sep 7-10

19

50

20

10

1

1998 Dec 28-29

23

54

16

5

2

1997 May 30-Jun 1

21

48

21

7

2

1976 Jun

13

52

23

9

3

1974 Apr

16

55

16

8

5

1972 May

12

51

26

7

4

16. 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 -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

5

50

37

6

1

 

 

 

 

 

2005 Sep 12-15

4

54

35

5

2

2004 Sep 13-15

6

57

32

3

2

2003 Sep 8-10

5

54

36

4

1

2002 Sep 5-8

6

54

33

6

1

2001 Sep 7-10 ^

4

51

39

6

*

2000 Jul 6-9

7

57

31

3

2

1998 Dec 28-29

7

56

31

4

2

1997 May 30-Jun 1

5

52

37

5

1

1976 Jun

6

58

28

4

4

1974 Apr

7

61

24

4

4

1972 May

7

58

27

5

2

^ Asked of a half sample.

17. 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 -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not very
much

None
at all

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2007 Sep 14-16

17

53

27

4

*

 

 

 

 

 

2005 Sep 12-15

22

56

19

3

*

2004 Sep 13-15

21

54

22

2

1

2003 Sep 8-10

24

52

21

2

1

2002 Sep 5-8

23

55

17

4

1

2001 Sep 7-10

17

57

22

3

1

1976 Jun

25

61

12

1

2

1974 Apr

27

56

13

2

3

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