Why Dems Need to Have More Trust in Government

At their best, charts and graphs are more than just the Y axes and X axes and data points that make them up. They're narratives in number form. In that sense, the most interesting statistical story I've read lately is the Pew Center's interactive map of Public Trust in Government: 1958-2010—both for explaining how we got here, politically speaking, and for predicting why President Obama's first year in office may prove to be the last gasp of activist Democratic governing in a long time. 


The overarching narrative here is pretty simple. Back in 1958, more than 70 percent of Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing "most of the time" or "just about always"; six years later, in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination, that number was approaching 80 percent. What happened next is familiar: Vietnam, "the '60s," Watergate, Jimmy Carter, and the rise of movement conservatism. By the time Ronald Reagan declared, in his first Inaugural Address, that "government is the problem," only about 30 percent of voters—a full 45 percent less than in 1964—were willing to admit that they trusted an institution that could enable baby killers, harbor crooks, and put a peanut farmer in charge of foreign policy. These trust numbers have remained in the basement ever since, with the only real spikes coinciding with moments of fear (9/11) or national pride (the Persian Gulf War).

Again, a familiar tale. But the devil, as always, is in the details. As Pew's chart of "trust by party" shows, the real story of political trust in the post-Reagan years isn't expressed in the overall fluctuations, which basically rise as unemployment numbers fall, and vice versa. Instead, it's embodied in the increasingly partisan ways that Democrats and Republicans have reacted to their political environments since 1980 or so.


In one sense, Dems and Repubs are similar: for each, "trust in government" has become less and less about the government itself than about who—and, more specifically, which party—is doing the governing. Until the advent of Reagan, trust declined roughly in unison, plummeting from 72 percent for Republicans and 79 percent for Democrats under Johnson (circa 1964) to about 24 percent for Republicans and 31 percent for Democrats under Carter (circa 1979). But as the media grew more partisan after 1980, trust became a much more polarized issue, with pollsters regularly measuring 20-point partisan gaps under Reagan and Bush I, 12-point gaps under Clinton, and whopping 35-point chasms under Bush II. These days the trend is to trust the government if it's run by members of your own party, regardless of performance, and distrust it if it's not. Blogs and cable news shows—media outlets that mirror their audiences' biases and encourage "epistemic closure"—have only exaggerated this shift.

So why is this bad news for Democrats? Because while Republican trust numbers tend to soar during Republican administrations and collapse during Democratic ones, Democratic trust numbers remain relatively lukewarm throughout. Of course, Dems are more likely to trust a Democratic government than its Republican counterpart. But while Republican trust numbers have shot up above 60 percent on several occasions (under Reagan, after 9/11) and remained above 50 percent for much of the Reagan and Bush II years—not to mention nosediving to 11 percent under Clinton and 7 percent or so under Obama—Democratic stats climbed above 50 percent only once (9/11) and never fell below 15, even under the dreaded Dubya. In short, Republicans seem to be more bipolar than their Democratic peers. They're both more distrustful of Democratic governments than Democrats are of GOP governments, and—somewhat surprisingly, given their supposed philosophical opposition to government itself—more trustful of their own governments than Democrats are of theirs.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this difference: on the right, greater epistemic closure and more heated rhetoric (both positive and negative); on the left, a longstanding tradition of intraparty sniping and skepticism. But the consequences are clearly worse for Democrats than for Republicans. The left tends to want to solve problems, at least in part, through government. The right tends to want government to butt out. If Democratic governments are getting no trust from Republicans and only a little trust from Democrats—the combined, cross-party average recently hit an all-time low of 22 percent—they're going to find it far more difficult than their Republican counterparts to get things done and, as a result, convince voters that government isn't the problem after all.

The partisan media aren't going anywhere. Neither is polarization. If Democrats want to restore trust in government, they might want to start by having more of it themselves.