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Trust In Government: NPR series explores root causes of the growing distrust of American government

• Ron Elving, NPR

The Pew Research Center has released a poll on trust in government, finding, to no one's surprise, that there is precious little of it.

For the remainder of April, NPR programs on air and online will explore the implications of this poll, and the root causes of the growing distrust of American government among Americans.

The poll surveyed more than 2,500 Americans of voting age in the second week of March, with follow-up polls done in April. In general, Pew found distrust and dislike of government to be as high as at any time since pollsters began posing similar questions two generations ago.

Why is the government so distrusted at this moment? What does that mean for government's ability and willingness to tackle big problems, or to enforce the solutions it devises? Is skepticism about the efficacy of government in some ways a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Some of the stories to be told by NPR reporters in the coming days concern specific issues -- the deficit, the wars, the new health care law -- that disturb many Americans and make them wonder whether Washington understands their strongly held views.

Others concern the psychological roots of the suspicion with which Americans have often regarded authority. We are in a real sense a nation of rebels, skeptics and resisters. What changes from one era to the next is not the underlying attitude or national character; it is rather the mix of policies and preachments we are pushing back against.

Change Of Direction In Obama Era

Right now, the American polity is responding to a wrenching change of direction personified by President Obama. The previous three decades had been dominated by a public philosophy embodied by President Reagan. Through this period of deconstruction, under Republican administrations and Democratic as well, the primary thrust of government change was toward deregulation and decentralization.

The idea was to restrain the power of Washington and shrink the federal footprint on the economy and the culture. But beyond that, the idea was to restore some of the prevailing presumptions of American politics in earlier generations. The pendulum that had swung one way in the 1960s and much of the 1970s began to swing back in the midterm elections of 1978, accelerating with Reagan's sweeping election in 1980 and re-election in 1984.

The era of President Clinton seemed to interrupt this general flow of events, but after two years of attempting major changes to the system (especially on gun control, trade deals, greater government involvement in health care and gays in the military), Clinton stepped back and played defense against a newly Republican Congress. He did so throughout the rest of his presidency, and he was followed in office by George W. Bush, who openly espoused a return to Reaganism.

Dissatisfaction With National Institutions

But while the to and fro of day-to-day politics figures front and center in the current national dissatisfaction, there are other sources of dissatisfaction evident in the Pew Research poll as well.
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2 Comments in Response to

Comment by Patriot 2012
Entered on:

Actually we don't need a poll....the mutual feelings are everywhere in this country, and we have to do something about it soon. Those in Government are the enemy. They treat us like it all the time and especially do not listen to anything we say. Therefore...they along with the law enforcement protecting the criminals have to be liable. It cannot be a double standard! 

Comment by Anonymous
Entered on:

 In as fine an example of telling us what we already know, as I've ever seen, National Public Radio "spins" the recent Pew polls (done in March, repeated in April - no doubt seeking higher numbers) at rpms far in excess of the fastest computer hard drive.

Noting that "the Pew poll shows a comparable level of dislike toward banks and financial institutions (22 percent positive, 69 percent negative). Large corporations do only slightly better (25 percent positive, 64 percent negative), a ratio that almost exactly matches the public scoring of the overall federal government (25 percent positive, 65 percent negative)."

No kidding.   Pew's polls at least suggest that "the public" (defined by a federal court as "that vast multitude that includes the ignorant, the unthinking, and the credulous...") is coming to grips with the fact that "banks and financial institutions...[and]...[l]arge corporations" ARE the government, even if they can't quite yet admit it to themselves.

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