Trust in Government Increases Sharply In Wake of Terrorist Attacks

by Frank Newport

Americans also more likely to say that government should do more to help solve the nation's problems

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- One effect of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 has been an extraordinary increase in the faith and confidence that Americans have in their federal government. For many years, polling has shown that the American public has a distinct wariness of the federal government and the role it should play in the nation's daily life. Now, after Sept. 11, these attitudes have shifted significantly. Six out of 10 Americans now say they trust their government, a level not seen since 1968, and half want the government to do more to solve the country's problems. This percentage is the highest it has been in the nine years that Gallup has been asking the question.

There are several explanations for these findings. All of our polling has shown a general rally effect in public attitudes since Sept. 11. Job approval ratings for President Bush jumped up 35% points in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks, and the 90% rating he received on Sept. 21-22 stands as the highest in Gallup poll history. Satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States has gone up, not down after the attacks, and several indicators of confidence in the U.S. economy also have risen. Support for the way the Bush administration and military are handling the crisis is also at about the 90% level. So far, we have registered extremely strong support for the military actions now underway in Afghanistan.

Thus, some of the sharp increase in trust in government reflects the phenomenon in which the people of a society rally together behind their leaders in a time of crisis. When there is an external threat to a society, there is often increased solidarity as people pull together in order to meet the short-term challenges.

In this situation, the major responsibility for the response to the attacks -- both domestically and internationally -- has come from the federal government in Washington, including most dramatically the military actions now underway.

The questions we have tracked over the years about trust in government and the role that the government should play do not mention the current crisis or terrorist attacks. But, there is little doubt that respondents may have interpreted the questions to mean the way the government is responding to this particular situation, rather than about government in a more generic or philosophic sense.

Thus, the higher levels of trust no doubt reflect a significant amount of this type of situational support, not necessarily a fundamental shift in the way Americans relate to their government.

Nonetheless, they may. One interesting question in the months and years ahead will be: Did the events of September 2001 bring about a fundamentally revised relationship between Americans and their government, one in which even conservatives or libertarians become more likely to recognize the role that a national government may need to play in the global environment in which we live? ? Or will the pattern eventually drop back down to the pre-Sept. 11 levels?

Scholars note that the Vietnam War, and especially Watergate, provided a long-lasting and significant turning point in Americans' relationships with their government. It is too early to tell if the current crisis and its aftermath will also signify such a turning point, but we do know that in the short term, we are witnessing a substantial change.

Trust in Government

As part of its National Election Study in 1958, the University of Michigan began asking: "How much of the time do you think you can trust government in Washington to do what is right -- just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?" This has become one of the basic questions Gallup and other organizations have used in recent years to measure Americans' relationships to their government.

There have certainly been significant shifts over the years in Americans' response to this question. In 1958, in the later years of the Eisenhower administration, less than 15 years after the end of World War II, and in an era of intense Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, the responses were overwhelmingly positive -- 73% of Americans said they could trust their government in Washington to do what is right most of the time or just about always.

How much of the time do you think you can trust government in Washington to do what is right -- just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?

The percentage of Americans who said they could trust their government to do what is right just about always or most of the time began to slip in the 1960s, and then dropped more significantly through the remainder of the 1970s, movement most often attributed to the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. There was an increase in trust during the Reagan administration, but it declined during the mid-1990s, coincident with a significant downturn in the economy, and also with such events as the widely publicized, and failed, attempt by the Clinton administration to advance a national healthcare plan.

As the economy began to pick up, however, the trust in government rating began to rise as well. By June 2000, 42% of Americans responded with the two most positive answers -- nowhere near the levels of the 1950s, but certainly up from the low point of 17% in 1994.

Now, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, that number has jumped significantly -- 60% say that they trust the federal government to do what is right either just about always or most of the time. This marks the highest point on this measure since 1968.

Should Government Do More?

In recent years, we have also tracked the degree to which Americans think their government should be doing more or doing less in dealing with the country's problems. The exact wording of the question is as follows: "Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your own view?"

Here is the basic pattern of responses:

Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your own view?

The feeling that government should do more to help solve the nation's problems dropped in the mid-90s, falling to a low point of 32% in December 1995, and really not increasing much since then. We updated this measure in a Sept. 7-10 poll, just on the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks, and found 36% of Americans said that government should do more. Now, in October, that number has risen to 50%, the highest (by one percentage point) in the history of this question. Only 41% of Americans now say that the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.

Cynicism About Government

Another measure reinforces the conclusion that Americans are less cynical about government than they were in either 1984 or 1992. This conclusion is based on a measure asked in those years, as well as this past weekend, which asked respondents to agree or disagree with the sentiment that public officials don't "care much what people like me think."

Here are the results:

I don't think public officials care much what people like me think

 

 

Agree

Disagree

No opinion

       

2001 Oct 5-6

41%

57

2

       

1992 Sep 11-15

59%

38

3

1984 Jul 27-30

53%

41

6



As can be seen, the percentage of Americans who disagree with this sentiment has risen to almost six out of 10, a major shift from the two times this question has been asked.

On the other hand, there has been little change in the agreement with the statement that "People like me don't have any say about what the government does." In 1992, 56% of the public disagreed with this statement, and about the same number disagree today.

People like me don't have any say about what the government does

 

 

Agree

Disagree

No opinion

       

2001 Oct 5-6

39%

59

2

       

1992 Sep 11-15

42%

56

2

1984 Jul 27-30

40%

57

3

1976 Feb 27-Mar 1

45%

50

5



Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 819 adults, 18 years and older, conducted October 5-6, 2000. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 4 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.

How much of the time do you think you can trust government in Washington to do what is right -- just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?

 

 

Just about
always

Most of
the time

Only some
of the time

NEVER
(vol.)

No
opinion

           
 

%

%

%

%

%

2001 Oct 5-6

13

47

38

1

1

           

2000 Jul 6-9

4

38

56

2

*

1999 Feb 4-8

5

29

64

2

*

1998 Jan 30-Feb 1

6

33

59

2

*

1997 May 30-Jun 1

3

29

65

2

1

1996 May 9-12

2

24

69

4

1

1995 Aug 4-7

2

20

71

5

2

1994 Jun 3-6

3

14

73

9

1

1994 Jan 28-30

1

19

74

5

1

1993 Mar 22-24

3

20

75

2

*

1992 Jun 4-8

2

21

71

4

2

           

University of Michigan National Election Study:

           

2000

4

40

55

1

1

1998

4

36

58

1

1

1996

3

30

66

1

0

1994

2

19

74

3

0

1992

3

26

68

2

1

1990

3

25

68

2

2

1988

4

37

56

2

1

1986

3

35

58

2

2

1984

4

40

53

1

2

1982

2

31

62

2

3

1980

2

23

69

4

2

1978

2

27

64

4

3

1976

3

30

62

1

4

1974

2

34

61

1

2

1972

5

48

44

1

2

1970

7

47

44

*

2

1968

7

54

37

*

2

1966

17

48

28

3

4

1964

14

62

22

*

2

1958

16

57

23

0

4



Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your own view?

 

 

Government
doing too much

Government
should do more

No
opinion

       
 

%

%

%

2001 Oct 5-6

41

50

9

       

2001 Sep 7-10

55

36

9

2000 Sep 11-13

50

37

13

2000 Aug 18-19

54

38

8

1999 Sep 10-14

55

39

6

1998 Oct 29-30

50

38

12

1998 Apr 17-19

59

33

8

1997 Jan 31-Feb 2

58

33

9

1996 Jan 12-15

58

35

7

1995 Dec 15-19

60

32

8

1994 Nov 2-6

55

37

8

1994 Oct 22-25

57

37

6

1994 Jan 15-17

54

39

7

1993 Dec 17-19

55

38

7

1993 Apr 22-24

49

45

6

1993 Mar 22-24

45

49

6

1992 Oct 23-25

48

44

8

1992 Sep 11-15

51

43

6

1992 Aug 31-Sep 2

50

43

7



Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?

 

 

Promote
traditional
values

Not favor
any set
of values


No
opinion

       
 

%

%

%

2001 Oct 5-6

59

39

3

       

2001 Sep 7-10

53

41

6

2000 Sep 11-13

54

38

8

1999 Sep 10-14

56

39

5

1998 Oct 29-30

56

37

7

1998 Apr 17-19

55

38

7

1997 Jan 31-Feb 2

53

40

7

1996 Jan 12-15

59

36

5

1994 Nov 2-6

55

37

8

1994 Oct 22-25

55

40

5

1994 Jan 15-17

54

40

6

1993 Dec 17-19

57

37

6

1993 Apr 22-24

55

39

6

1993 Mar 22-24

53

42

5



COMBINED RESPONSES

 

 

"Pure
liberal"


"Populist"


"Libertarian"

"Pure conservative"


Undesignated

           
 

%

%

%

%

%

2001 Oct 5-6

18

30

17

23

12

           

2001 Sep 7-10

16

18

22

30

14

2000 Sep 11-13

16

18

18

30

18

1999 Sep 10-14

15

23

23

31

8

1998 Oct 29-30

14

23

19

29

15

1998 Apr 17-19

13

17

21

34

15

1997 Jan 31-Feb 2

13

17

24

31

15

1996 Jan 12-15

13

20

20

35

12

1994 Nov 2-6

15

20

20

32

13

1994 Oct 22-25

16

19

21

33

11

1994 Jan 15-17

16

20

22

30

14

1993 Dec 17-19

13

23

22

31

11

1993 Apr 22-24

17

25

20

27

11

1993 Mar 22-24

20

27

19

24

10



* -- less than 0.5%

(vol) -- Volunteered response

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