Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor

Apr 19, 2010

Take the Quiz Before You Read the Report

By almost every measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government today. A new series of surveys provides a detailed picture of the public's opinions about government. How satisfied are you? Take the Pew Research Center's new quiz and see how you compare with the average American.

Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor

By almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days. A new Pew Research Center survey finds a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government – a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.

Rather than an activist government to deal with the nation's top problems, the public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its power curtailed. With the exception of greater regulation of major financial institutions, there is less of an appetite for government solutions to the nation's problems – including more government control over the economy – than there was when Barack Obama first took office.

The public's hostility toward government seems likely to be an important election issue favoring the Republicans this fall. However, the Democrats can take some solace in the fact that neither party can be confident that they have the advantage among such a disillusioned electorate. Favorable ratings for both major parties, as well as for Congress, have reached record lows while opposition to congressional incumbents, already approaching an all-time high, continues to climb.

The Tea Party movement, which has a small but fervent anti-government constituency, could be a wild card in this election. On one hand, its sympathizers are highly energized and inclined to vote Republican this fall. On the other, many Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the Tea Party represents their point of view better than does the GOP.

These are the principal findings from a series of surveys that provide a detailed picture of the public's opinions about government. The main survey, conducted March 11-21 among 2,505 adults, was informed by surveys in 1997 and 1998 that explored many of the same questions and issues. While a majority also distrusted the federal government in those surveys, criticism of government had declined from earlier in the decade. And the public's desire for government services and activism was holding steady.

This is not the case today. Just 22% say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century. About the same percentage (19%) says they are "basically content" with the federal government, which is largely unchanged from 2006 and 2007, but lower than a decade ago.

Read the full report Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor on the Pew Research Center's Web site.

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