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New Report Outlines Deep Public Distrust of Federal Government

Negative views of government performance are hardly new, but with a presidential election rapidly approaching, criticism of the federal government has grown decidedly more pointed among the American public.

A year ahead of the presidential election, a majority of the public says “ordinary Americans” would do a better job of solving national problems than elected officials, according to a survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center.

In the new survey, elected officials were widely regarded as dishonest and selfish in comparison to “typical Americans” or “business leaders.” Additionally, only 19 percent said they can trust the government always or most of the time, and 74 percent said most elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country’s.

Just one month after 9/11, 60 percent of Americans said they could trust the government. But confronted with the Iraq War and economic uncertainty, trust began to decline. By July 2007, it had fallen to 24 percent. Since then, the survey found that public trust remains at historically low levels.

Distrust of government also varies along party lines. Twenty-six percent of Democrats say they can trust the federal government nearly always or most of the time, compared with just 11 percent of Republicans. Since President Obama took office in 2009, Democrats have expressed greater trust in government than Republicans.

Pessimism over politics has pervaded the public’s perceptions in a number of ways. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say that on issues that matter to them, their side loses more often than it wins. Even for millennials, the future seems bleak: only about four-in-ten adults younger than 30 say they have “quite a lot” of confidence in the nation’s future.

Although most respondents said their general feelings toward the government have tended more toward frustration than anger, those Republicans who were “angry” at the federal government viewed Donald Trump more favorably. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson also received higher approval ratings among Republicans who are angry at the government, while Jeb Bush scored lower.

The public also reflected cynicism toward the influence of money in presidential campaigns. A full 76 percent said that “money has a greater influence on politics and elected officials today than in the past.” Sixty-four percent even said that the high cost of presidential campaigns “discourages many good candidates from running.”

In terms of the size and scope of government’s role, there was bipartisan agreement that the federal government should have a major role in addressing issues ranging from terrorism to natural disaster response, and majorities of respondents said that the government does a good job at handling them. There was even broad support for the government playing a larger role in managing the immigration system, although the presidential campaign has highlighted the sharp partisan divide over immigration policy.

However, the Pew Research Center also reported substantial partisan differences in views on the government performance on certain issues, which could be important in the presidential campaign. Republicans were less likely than Democrats to say the government has successfully strengthened the economy, and the gap is just as large for ensuring access to health care.