New polls show a dissolving of the American consensus

The Pew Research Center recently dropped its latest polling opus, “Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government,” and the title steered most of the coverage of the report. NPR began its online story by noting that “Only 19 percent of Americans—about 1 in 5—say they trust the government ‘always or most of the time.’” But Pew’s average of polls show that trust in the government actually hit bottom in 2011, at 15 percent. This question hasn’t been consistently answered in the affirmative by a majority of Americans since the early 1970s, except for a brief rally right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

One explanation is that we never recovered from a loss of faith in the government after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Another theory: We’ll never have a majority trusting the government to do the right thing when America has become so large and diverse that we can’t agree on what the right thing is. That helps to explain why 64 percent of the respondents in the Pew poll said “their side” loses more than it wins in American politics. This feeling of defeat is strongest among conservatives (81 percent) and Republicans (79 percent), even with the Republican Party in control of Congress and most state legislatures. It is weaker, but still substantial, among liberals (44 percent) and Democrats (52 percent). We’ll see if those percentages flip if a Republican wins the White House.


A dissolving of the consensus on what the government should do (a consensus, it must be said, that may have been easier to prop up when racial and other minorities were kept out of the political process) may also explain why only 34 percent of the Pew respondents have a good or great deal of confidence in “the political wisdom of the American people.” This is down from 57 percent just eight years ago, before the election of Democrat Barack Obama as president in 2008 and before the Republican take-over of the House of Representatives in 2010. There is no real partisan difference on this measure, as only 37 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans trust their countrymen’s wisdom. Among independents, the figure is an even lower 23 percent, but that group can’t content itself with the knowledge that it controls anything in government.

Strikingly, the low marks given to the political wisdom of the general public didn’t stop 55 percent of respondents from agreeing that “ordinary Americans” would do better than elected officials at “solving the country’s problems.” It’s as if people were telling Washington, “my brother-in-law could do a better job than you do, and he stinks.”

Free speech under siege, same as it ever was

Another recent Pew report that got a lot of attention concerned support for freedom of speech, both in the U.S. and around the globe. “The Younger You Are, the Less You Support Free Speech,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Michael McGough, who relayed Pew results showing that “40% of respondents ages 18-34 said they agreed that offensive statements could be outlawed,” compared with less than 30 percent for older groups.

Mr. McGough writes that he immediately thought of free-speech controversies on college campuses but then noticed that college graduates in the survey were less supportive of the idea that the government should be able to prevent statements that are “offensive to minority groups.” While 22 percent of all respondents with college degrees were receptive to censorship, 31 percent of all those who had not gone beyond high school favored granting the government such powers.  

As Mr. McGough points out, it’s possible that older college graduates are skewing the results, and that college-graduate millennials “are more sensitive than older generations to the pain inflicted by racially insensitive comments.” (The poll may also be skewed because college-graduate millennials are more likely to be members of racial minority groups.) But I’ve been hearing about the supposed evils of political correctness on campuses for decades, at least since Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, and I’m skeptical that things changed dramatically at the turn of the century.

New York magazine’s Jesse Singal writes that the recent Pew data is no more alarming for free-speech advocates than polls going back to the 1930s. He cites “a 1999 American Attitudes About the First Amendment survey in which respondents were asked whether they agreed with the statement ‘People should be allowed to use words in public that might be offensive to racial groups.’ Combining the ‘mildly disagree’ and ‘strongly disagree’ categories, 75 percent of respondents in the 18-to-29 age bracket disagreed.”

The divide on why (and whether) American family is under siege

“Both liberals and conservatives view the family as being under attack” in America, according to the press release for a recent survey by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. That may be overstating things: the poll of 3,000 American adults found that 43 percent say the institution of marriage in the U.S. is “weaker” than it was two years ago, compared with 40 percent saying it has remained the same and 5 percent saying it is stronger. Since it’s difficult to imagine what would prompt people to say marriage is getting stronger (a new tax credit for couples? the return of bans on unmarried couples sharing hotel rooms?), I’m counting this as a near-even split on the question of whether American marriage needs saving.

There is, in fact, an ideological divide on the question. Fifty-four percent of those who identified as conservative said marriage as an institution has become weaker over the past two years, compared with 39 percent of moderates and 25 percent of liberals. (At least 45 percent of those in each age group over 45 said marriage is getting weaker, compared to less than 35 percent in younger groups.) The national legalization of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court earlier this year is presumably a factor in these differences. The Deseret News poll found that 94 percent identifying as “very conservative” and 90 percent as conservative agreed that “children need both a male and female role model in the home,” compared with 64 percent of moderates, 49 percent of liberals, and 27 percent of those calling themselves “very liberal.”

The survey found that some government policies designed to help families are popular with both Democrats and Republicans, including the child tax credit, Head Start programs, and the home mortgage tax deduction. Especially popular is the idea of requiring employers to provide paid maternity leave (“even Republicans support paid maternity leave of nearly four months, which is considerably more than the 12 weeks of unpaid leave currently mandated by the federal Family Medical Leave Act”).

But Republicans are less supportive of programs such as food stamps and housing assistance. The authors write, “One possible hypothesis people might have about government assistance programs is that they deter marriage, perhaps because the benefits are offered in a way that privileges the unmarried. To some degree, we found evidence of this effect in the survey. When we asked respondents whether or not people (or those in their family) chose not to get married because of fear of losing government benefits 32% responded that they did…. The most likely groups to respond ‘yes’ are whites, Republicans, and the very conservative.”







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Chuck Kotlarz
3 years 3 months ago
Follow the money (actually the top federal income tax rate) for a possible link to the distrust of government. High trust perhaps correlates with a high or increased top federal income tax rate. 1964 - Trust peaks at 77% following ten years at a 91% top federal income tax rate. 1980 - Trust falls to 26% as the top federal income tax rate falls to 70%. 1985 - Trust rises to 45%. Although the top federal income tax rate had fallen to 50%, some economists note that no peacetime president has raised taxes so much on so many people as Reagan in 1982-83. 1994 - Trust falls to 17% after the top federal income tax rate hits 28%. 2001 - Trust jumps to 60% after the top federal income tax rate increases to 39.6%. 2011 - Trust falls further reaching 10% after eight years of a top federal income tax rate at 35%. 2014 - Trust rises to 24% as the top federal income tax rate advances to 39.6%.
Chuck Kotlarz
3 years 3 months ago
The correlation below would appear to make sense. High or rising top tax rates signal politicians are working for the people instead of the economic elite. Trust rises as politicians respond to Main Street issues.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 6 months ago
Did the founding fathers envision a donor class spending a $3 billion every year to lobby 535 members of congress? That’s in addition to another $3 billion the donor class spends every two years on congressional elections and then another $3 billion every four years on presidential elections. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to say the public’s trust in Fortune 500 CEOs, billionaires and their 10,000 lobbyists running the government has fallen to 10%.


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