December 2, 2022
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Column: Pew survey: Americans say politicians are in it for themselves

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Americans have little trust in the federal government.

Public opinion has been pretty consistent on that for about two decades.

A new Pew Research Center survey shows trust in government has been on a downward slide since President George W. Bush was in office, and has leveled off at or near the all-time low over the subsequent three presidential administrations.

Given the heightened partisanship and turbulence in politics, that’s hardly surprising. That timeline frames the trend, but Pew does not suggest the presidents alone are responsible. Far from it.

The report examines a broad array of public perceptions, but one of them in particular leaps out: A vast, bipartisan majority of Americans believe most people run for office “to serve their own personal interest.” That applies to candidates for local, state and federal offices.

The survey delves into nuanced views about government that aren’t all negative. Americans for the most part say government is necessary and that it performs some duties well, while others not so much.

But while the term “self-serving politician” may have been around for ages, the depth of skepticism about political motivation borne out in the Pew survey is troubling.

Of those surveyed, only 18 percent said most people who run for office “do so because they want to serve the community.” Three percent said community service motivates all candidates.

On the dark flipside, 65 percent said all or most candidates are motivated by personal interests. Another 27 percent said that’s a factor for some candidates. The breakdown is nearly identical among Republicans or Republican-leaning individuals and Democrats or Democratic leaners.

The survey did not address what respondents thought the personal interests were (e.g. political ambition, financial gain or something else).

Here’s another downer: There’s little confidence that members of Congress are responsive to individual concerns. About a quarter of people surveyed said that if they contacted their House representative with a problem, it is very or somewhat unlikely the member would assist them.

That belief has grown since 2018, according to Pew, though more so among Republicans. (For context, Democrats gained the House majority in the 2018 election and control of the Senate in January 2021.)

Americans long have been distrustful of and dissatisfied with the government in Washington. The trust level has plummeted from 54 percent in October 2001 to 20 percent now, according to the Pew survey. A low of 17 percent was hit in 2011 when Barack Obama was president and again in 2019 during the Trump administration.

That barometer had gone up and down dramatically before. Trust in government reached a high of 77 percent in 1964, Pew said.

Traditionally, trust in government is higher among the party of the president. Yet only 29 percent of Democrats said they trust government almost always or most of the time, compared with 9 percent of Republicans.

“The share of Republicans expressing trust in the federal government is currently as low as it has been at any point in the last 60 years; levels of trust among Democrats reached historic lows during George W. Bush’s and Donald Trump’s presidencies,” according to Pew.

This is not to say the public is anti-government. Majorities of 60 percent or more said the government should have a major role in 11 of 12 areas, including terrorism, immigration, the economy, ensuring access to health care and protecting the environment.

“Americans’ unhappiness with government has long coexisted with their continued support for government having a substantial role in many realms,” Pew said.

The public view on how government executes in those categories is mixed. For instance, 68 percent said the federal government does a good job of keeping the country safe from terrorism, while 24 percent approved of how it manages the immigration system.

About two-thirds of those surveyed said government does too little on issues affecting middle-class people, those with lower incomes and retirees.

“Among 11 groups included in the survey, the only group about which a majority of adults (61%) say the government does too much for are high-income people,” the report said.

Local and state governments continue to be viewed more favorably than the federal government, Pew said. But disputes over state policies raging from abortion to public school textbooks has raised issues about the relationship between state and federal governments.

About a third of people surveyed said they were concerned that the federal government is doing too much on issues better left to the states. Another third said they were somewhat concerned. Republicans felt far more strongly about that than Democrats.

A third also expressed concern that states were not willing enough to work with the federal government. Democrats were much more in this camp.

At the moment, a large majority of Americans are not happy about the way things are going overall. Only 24 percent surveyed said they are satisfied with the current state of the nation, and consider several problems — particularly inflation — as serious ones.

Despite that, 68 percent said they have confidence — 17 say a lot, 51 percent say some — in the future of the country.

That seems a pretty bright outlook for the times we are in.

Tweet of the Week

Goes to Evan McLaughlin (@CapitolEVAN), communications and political strategy consultant.

“If a Presidential Election is equivalent to the Super Bowl of sports, this primary election was a weekday A’s-Royals game at the Coliseum. The outcome matters and the voting reforms helped die hard fans get to the game, but it just wasn’t really important to the casual fan.”





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