Americans have little trust in their government, especially when their preferred party doesn’t hold the White House. With Joe Biden as president, only 9% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they trust the federal government to do what’s right just about always or most of the time, about the same as when Barack Obama was president. But last August, when Donald Trump was president, that number for Republicans was about three times higher (28%.)
The flip side holds true for Democrats. Under President Biden and President Obama, more than a third of Democrats (36%, most recently) said they could usually trust the government to do what’s right. When President Trump was in office, only 12% felt that way.
These are among the findings in the latest Pew Research Center survey of Americans’ expectations and evaluations of the federal government. The survey was conducted April 5-11 among a nationally representative sample of 5,109 adults, all members of the Center’s American Trends Panel.
Overall, U.S. adults rate environmental quality and childhood education among their highest expectations from government. They broadly agree that it’s the federal government’s role to provide everyone with clean air and water (87%) and high-quality K-12 education (79%). Smaller majorities say it is the government’s responsibility to provide health insurance (64%), adequate retirement income (58%), and an adequate standard of living (56%). About 4 in 10 say the government is responsible for providing a college education (39%).
These results are little changed since the Center’s survey in 2019, before the start of the pandemic. But after a year of online schooling and countless Zoom meetings, the 2021 survey did find a 15 percentage point increase among those saying the government is responsible for providing high-speed internet access—43%, up from 28% in September 2019.
These are overall population numbers, however, combining Republicans, Democrats, and independents. When filtered by party affiliation, respondents show distinct partisan differences in their views of government responsibilities. Most Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say the government should have a role in those subjects. But most Republicans and Republican leaners see only two of them as the federal government’s responsibility: providing clean air and water (77%) and high-quality K-12 education (64%).
The tendency for people to put more trust in government when their preferred party is in power—and less trust when the other party is in control—isn’t new, but it’s growing, says political scientist Grant Reeher. “The pattern goes back at least as far as Clinton, and probably to Reagan,” says Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship. “But it has been getting more pronounced with time.”
What’s more important, Reeher says, is that “the overall trust in government is dropping.” When in the minority, Democrats and Republicans alike say that “the party in power cannot be trusted,” he says. As these accusations fly back and forth, election after election, “the overall message is that the government can’t be trusted.”
A partisan split on what government should do
The Center survey found that Democrats and Republicans differ most widely on whether it’s the government’s responsibility to provide health insurance for all Americans. Nearly 9 in 10 Democrats (88%) say yes. Only a third of Republicans do.
The partisan divide is about as stark when Americans were asked the general question of whether the federal government should do more to solve problems.
The share of Republicans who say the government should do more has dropped from 32% last year, under President Trump, to 23% today under President Biden. Democrats showed no such change during a presidential shift from Republican to Democrat. The share of Democrats who feel the government should do more to solve problems is essentially unchanged over the past year: 81% of Democrats say the government should do more to solve problems today, compared with 82% in August, during President Trump’s final year in office.
As COVID-19 raged during Trump’s final months and Biden’s early months as president, congressional Democrats and Republicans agreed to pour huge sums into economic relief for struggling Americans. In Congress and the general public, “Republicans were more open to pandemic relief than many might have expected,” says Carroll Doherty, the Pew Research Center’s director of political research. But a recent survey found 71% of Republicans now say the federal deficit is a big problem, up sharply from last year. With the pandemic abating, and Democrats controlling Congress and the White House, “Republicans are going back to their roots a bit,” Doherty says.
Syracuse’s Reeher says: “What’s most interesting to me is that so many Democrats want the government to do more, in a time in which the government is already doing a lot. The recent stimulus packages, taken as a whole, are a massive amount of debt-financed public spending, which would have made a liberal’s head spin just a few decades ago.”
Somewhat content, but mostly frustrated with government
The proportion of Americans saying they’re basically content with the federal government is now higher than at any point since 2004. And the share saying they feel angry with the government is lower than it has been in recent years. Still, far more adults say they feel frustrated with the government (52%) than angry (17%) or content (29%).
Again, a partisan divide emerges. The share of Democrats who say they’re basically content with government has increased dramatically since the fall of 2020—shortly before President Biden’s election—from 9% to 43%—and now stands at its highest level in about two decades.
The reverse is true among Republicans, with more expressing anger, and fewer expressing contentment, with government. Roughly a third of Republicans (32%) now say they feel angry with the government, compared with just 14% who said the same last August, under President Trump. The share of Republicans angry with the federal government is about the same as it was during the end of President Obama’s administration.
Overall, however, frustration with government is more prevalent among partisans than either anger or contentment. Today, a bit more than half of Republicans (55%) and Democrats (52%) say they feel frustrated with the federal government.
Reviewing the responses about anger, contentment, and frustration, Doherty says, it’s worth keeping in mind that even in this time of sharp partisanship and concerns about the pandemic, contentment with government is the highest it has been in years. He points out that the trend is driven mainly by Democrats, whose rising contentment outweighs Republicans’ drop.
“Anger is lower now, with more people content than angry,” Doherty says. “The shift isn’t huge, but it’s noteworthy.”
Charles Babington is a Washington writer and frequent contributor to Trust.