Poll Shows Shrinking Trust in Government and Each Other

The Capitol is seen early morning in Washington on Nov. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(CN) – A majority of U.S. adults believe that trust in both the federal government and fellow Americans has been shrinking, according to a poll released Monday, and most say it is important to reverse those trends.

In a Pew Research Center survey of 10,618 adults late last year, 75% of respondents felt that Americans’ trust in the federal government is declining, and 64% said the same about trust in each other.

As for fixing the problem, 68% said it is very important to improve trust in government and 58% felt the same about confidence in each other. Most respondents agreed that diminished trust makes it much more difficult to solve problems.

Researchers also explored how demographics affected trust in others.

Overall, 76% of respondents identified as low to medium “trusters,” while only 22% regarded themselves as high trusters. White respondents, respondents over the age of 65, postgraduates and those who made more than $75,000 annually were the most likely to trust others, at 27%, 37%, 33% and 30%, respectively.

The least trusting demographics were Hispanic respondents, those under the age of 30, people without a college education, and those who made less than $30,000, with only 12%, 11%, 15% and 13% identifying as high trusters, respectively.

Amongst community leaders, scientists were the most trusted, at 75% of low-trusting respondents and 92% of high-trusting respondents. Elected officials were the least-trusted at 27% for low trusters and 46% for high trusters.

Such distrust begs the question: How did we get here?

Researchers gave anonymous respondents the opportunity to address these questions in their own words and offer possible solutions. One recurring them was the loss of community.

“People are jaded in this day and age,” one 46-year-old woman said. “Elected officials cannot be trusted. There is a huge divide between Democrats and Republicans. Social media allows people to air dirty laundry. People are not as friendly and neighborly as they were years ago. Society has drastically changed!”

Another respondent, 44, also cited a loss of community, as well as increased partisanship, for the lack of public trust.

“Empathy as well as generally attempting to understand and to help each other are all at disturbingly low levels,” the man said. “People are quick to attack and to vilify others, even without clear proof, solely on the basis of accusations or along partisan lines.”

A 36-year-old woman pointed to changes in American society as a factor in widespread distrust.

“A segment of the population is really struggling to embrace the changing demographics, the need to reconcile our nation’s painful origins, letting go of 20th century jobs founded on Industrial Revolution templates of labor, resource management and national interests.”

A 26-year-old man, meanwhile, blamed tribalism for the rising distrust.

“America has divided itself into hundreds of ‘special interest’ groups, whether those are created by race, religion, sexuality, etc., and it has gotten to a point where too many people are offended by what used to be common language,” he said. “I think it has made too many Americans ‘afraid’ of speaking and trusting people they don’t know.”

Politicians were also widely seen as part of the problem.

“Trust in the federal government is low due to, in my opinion, unqualified people running it who are often dishonest,” a 30-year-old man said. “When you can’t trust elected and appointed officials, it impedes essentially everything in the government’s purview from working properly.”

Another respondent, a 63-year-old woman, offered a list of solutions to rekindle trust in government: less focus on preserving politicians’ own power, abating the influence of money in politics, elevating ethics in politics, promoting fact-based legislation and more bipartisanship in government.

“This is not a war,” she said.

Though most respondents indicated they expect better from politicians and fellow Americans, 58% also lacked confidence that people could have civil conversations with others who held views different than their own. About the same number, 57%, said they were not confident that the electorate was able to cast informed votes.

Only a slim majority (53%) said they were confident the electorate would accept future election results, while 49% said they were confident people could reconsider their views and stayed informed about important issues. A similar number, 48%, were confident people will respect the rights of others.

Majorities of 60% and above were confident that people would adhere to basic societal expectations, such as following the law, reporting crimes, paying their taxes and treating others with respect.

But despite the recognition of political, cultural and rhetorical divisions in America, the issue of distrust fell low on Americans’ policy priorities compared to other challenges. Just 41% of respondents said that confidence in the federal government was a “very big” problem, and even fewer (25%) felt that confidence in each other was a top priority.

Instead, drug addiction (70%), affordable health care (67%), ethics in government (67%), affordable education (63%) and bipartisanship (62%) were the top five indicated priorities.

The data indicated that while respondents have noticed a decline in public trust, they still prioritize everyday issues over the ever-present calls for “civility” by thought leaders and some politicians and pundits since the 2016 election. Though respondents lamented the loss of community over the years, they seemed to lament the deterioration of public policy more.

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