November 24, 2015 Last Updated 7:39 am

Pew survey shows Americans ‘deeply cynical’ about their government, the news media as having a negative effect

Report reinforces view that those most angry at government hold positive opinions of candidates such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson, give Jeb Bush a low favorability rating

The PewResearchCenter yesterday released a massive report entitled Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government. I would strongly recommend downloading the PDF of the report and spending some time with it as it contains a lot of information and much to ponder.

There is no single headline here as it is not news that Americans are “deeply cynical” about their government, as Pew states it. Seventy-four percent of Americans, for instance, believe most elected officials put their own interests ahead of country’s. Of course, the same cynical group of Americans, it should be pointed out, routinely reelect their own representatives.


The new study surveyed 6,000 adults between August 27 and October 5 of this year. Pew had previously conducted the same study in 1998 and again in 2010.

As you can see with the graphic above, trust in government has been falling for a long time, with Democrats and Republicans trading places as to who distrusts government more depending on who is in the White House – but the trend remains downward.

I found the fact that the gap between supporters of the two parties diverges during the Reagan administration and remains to their day. I believe the reason is tied to other data found in the Pew report concerning where Democrats and Republicans differ in their views.

In general, both Democratic and Republican supporters distrust government, but in the areas of health care and the economy differences show up. Democrats generally believe government plays a role in “helping people get out of poverty” and in “ensuring access to health care.” Among Democrats, 83 percent believe the government should help its citizens obtain health care coverage, while only 34 percent of Republicans do. In other words, these are two areas where the political divide is widest and where candidates for the Presidency would be wise to avoid the subject (good luck with that, right?)

Sixty-eight percent of those who identify as Democrats believe government plays a role in “strengthening the economy”, while only 34 percent of Republicans agree.

As you can see, this is very much the Reagan divide: while both sides of the political spectrum may distrust government, one side denies that government should have any role at all, while the other simply believes it is under performing.

None of this should be too much of a surprise, but the Pew report presents real numbers and understanding to the subject. In one area, actual anger at the government, the report also shows where Donald Trump supporters stand apart.

Donald Trump is viewed more favorably by the nearly one-third of Republicans and leaners who are angry at government (64% favorable) than by those who are frustrated or content with government (48%). Other GOP presidential candidates (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson) also get higher favorable ratings among Republicans who are angry at government than among non- angry Republicans, in part because they are better known among the “angry” group.

In contrast, Jeb Bush’s favorable rating is 18 percentage points lower among “angry” than “non-angry” Republicans (57% vs 39%).

TrustinGovt-2The news media does not come off good in this report. According to Pew, 65 percent of those surveyed have a negative view of the news media. The President, by comparison is viewed negatively by 51 percent of those surveyed. As in other reports, the Congress is viewed the most negatively, with 75 percent having a negative view of the institution, and only 14 percent a positive view.

It would be interesting to see more historic data in this area. Pew only reports that the media was viewed positively by the 31 percent of the public back in March of 2010, versus 25 percent today, and actually up from 22 percent in February 2012.

Republicans are the most negative about the news media, with only 17 percent saying that it “has a positive effect on the way things are” versus 33 percent of those who identify as Democrats. In fact, only President Obama and the Congress is seen as having a more negative effect on the state of the nation.

Despite the huge amount of distrust in the government, both sides of the political divide still want much from the government. Both sides want it to keep citizens safe, respond to natural disasters, keep food and medicines safe, and manage both infrastructure and immigration. But barely a slim majority of Republicans now believe it is government’s duty to ensure access to quality education, and both sides seems to be ambivalent about advancing space exploration. Calling for a mission to Mars, for instance, will not be a winning positions this fall in the Presidential race.

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