The Gallup organization has been studying the American attitude toward the federal government for the past 40 years, yet their latest poll results have entered a new realm. In looking at data dating back all the way to 1971, at no time has the distrust of governmental institutions and elected leaders been lower than it is today.
According to their September 2011 survey, 81 percent of those sampled (Sept. 8-11; 1,017 adults; released Sept. 26) say they are dissatisfied with the way they are being governed, a record high for the 40 years that they have been testing such feelings and attitudes. Only 19 percent responded favorably to this question. The numbers began this seriously downward trend at the beginning of 2007 when the ratio was 31:67 percent positive to negative. Right after the 2010 election, the results improved to 44:56 percent, but then retreated soon after.
The only other era in modern political history when the trust numbers even approached the current levels was during Watergate and the Nixon resignation back in 1974. But, even then, the macro ratings were still better than they are today. At that time, 26 percent of the survey respondents reported being satisfied with the way they were being governed versus 66 percent who were dissatisfied.
Beginning in 1982, the negativity of the Watergate era dissipated and the number of respondents expressing confidence in the federal government reached parity with those who were dissatisfied. By the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s second term in 1984, the trust factor ventured into strongly positive territory (55:37 percent) and continued this consistent pattern all through the Reagan (second term), Bush, and Clinton presidencies, all the way to the conclusion of George W. Bush’s first term, and never varied by more than a few percentage points.
By the middle of the second Bush term, however, the public attitude toward government deteriorated and the trust factor has yet to rebound. In fact, now three-quarters of the way through President Obama’s first term, public trust in government has cratered to an almost unanimous negative impression.
Congress’ job approval has normally been below 50 percent since 1971 except for the period between 1998-2003 – streaming to an 84 percent positive impression right after the Sept. 11 attacks. Now, it too is reaching a record modern era low, spiraling down to the range of the 13th percentile.
From 1972 all the way through 2008, Americans said they had either a “great deal” or at least a fair amount of confidence in the men and women who held public office. After the beginning of the Obama Administration, however, these numbers, too, have trended seriously downward. Being no worse than 54:44 percent positive to negative during the entire aforementioned 36-year period, the public official confidence factor has now tumbled all the way to 31:69 percent, with the latter figure representing those saying they have “not very much” or no trust and confidence in elected office holders.
The Gallup results are codified by the results of the last three elections. The voting results in 2006, ’08, and ’10 represent the first time that Americans have expressed anti-incumbent sentiment at the polls during three consecutive elections. As the confidence factor continues to deteriorate, another anti-establishment wave could again emerge in 2012.