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Gov-love was fading long before the shutdown: study

A man jogs past the US Capitol in Washington on September 30, 2013. The federal bureaucracy officially began a shutdown as of midnight, further damag...
A man jogs past the US Capitol in Washington on September 30, 2013. The federal bureaucracy officially began a shutdown as of midnight, further damaging Americans' faith in government.NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP - Getty Images

In the gray dawn of shutdown, Americans don’t need fancy research to confirm faith is waning in the government. By how much? A study, released Tuesday, finds historic slippage in the trust many U.S. citizens hold in their elected leaders to fix the biggest problems.

The lens for this verdict is the Great Recession: After the 2008 economic crisis, public support for government involvement in large social dilemmas abruptly declined, according to a paper published in the October issue of the American Sociological Review. Researchers said they were “surprised” by that national stance because during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Americans demanded that government solve the mess. 

“There is something going on here that wasn’t going on in earlier decades,” said Jeff Manza, a study co-author and a sociology professor at New York University. To better decipher those attitudes, he and a colleague dissected three decades of the General Social Survey – a sweeping analysis of U.S. behaviors and trends – plus recent Gallup polls.

While some Americans tended to lose some confidence in the government as the recession roiled, the researchers found a nuanced wrinkle in the data: Conservatives, on the whole, dramatically deepened their pre-existing dislike for government programs during those recent, hard years while Democrats collectively only lost a bit of their belief in the federal system, Manza said.

“There’s always been red and blue in Washington, but the thinking has long been that the average person is purple, sees good and bad in both sides. Now, after a few decades of partisan divide at the top, it’s beginning to filter down into the views of everyday Americans to where Republicans and Democrats are living in very different worlds,” Manza said.

In short, people who identify with the Republican Party – and who are more apt to oppose regulation and taxes – are moving faster to the right than Democrat-affiliated people are moving to the left, the study found.

The Congressional impasse and resulting federal closure has, for many conservatives, further crumbled their shaky trust.

“Whatever side you’re on, it’s fairly obvious that the U.S. Congress is not an institution to be counted on," said Ben Cunningham, a “semi-retired” restate developer and Internet entrepreneur from Nashville and part of the Tea Party movement since its inception.

“This is just a group of people (in Washington, D.C.) that don’t have my interests at heart. So yes, the events of the last few days are just confirmation that big government is not something I can depend on.”

But erosion of loyalty in the government brand is a tide that far pre-dates the birth of the Tea Party and the previous few national recessions, for that matter.

During the past half century, Americans' confidence in government peaked in 1964 when 62 percent of citizens reported they trusted the Washington, D.C. bureaucracy “most of the time,” according to American National Election Studies (ANES), a collegiate collaboration that produces data on voting, public opinion, and political participation.

During the next five decades – as that conviction trended down – there were three distinct drops: 14 percentage points in 1966 as opposition to the Vietnam War took root, 14 percentage points in 1974 following the Watergate conspiracy, and 18 percentage points in 2008 as the United States gasped through a financial chokehold.

Through the full span, the share of Americans who trusted the government “most of the time” tumbled by 37 percentage points, ANES figures show.

In the country’s electorally blue hubs, many folks still maintain allegiance to the notion that government is working in their best interests – though large swaths of that government aren’t working at all today.

“This broad brush of not trusting government is a little overblown,” said Sandy Britt, 46, a small business owner from Rochester, N.Y., who describes himself as politically left of center. “If you’re talking about civil-service employees, they have no agenda, no motivation to lie to people. I don’t think government itself should be mistrusted.

“Everything comes down to someone told you something and you believed it,” Britt adds. “You can be a conspiracy theorist to a fault and think everyone in the government is somehow out to get you. They’re absolutely not. There’s no way they have time to watch everything you do.”

But there’s a far-deeper social chasm between those who don’t trust the feds and those who don’t want the government to thrust its available muscle into an American emergency, said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

“After opponents of government spent 50 years pillorying government, it’s not surprising people would be reluctant to have it involved in helping solve a problem. But, really, that's terribly problematic,” said Hetherington, author of "Why Trust Matters: Declining Political Trust and the Demise of American Liberalism.”

“If we ever faced a large-scale crisis, it’s important for government to be able to respond,” he added. “And what we've gotten a real dose of this week is that the public is willing to support inaction as opposed to action.”