This is not a new phenomenon. To the contrary, the numbers have held steady for over a decade. Major complaints include not handling taxpayer money well, not handling new developments well, favoring one group over another and withholding information from the public. Pew reports: “A majority of Americans say they feel frustrated with the federal government: 60% say this today, while 22% say they are basically content and 18% say they are angry.”
At the same time, the public still says government has a significant role to play: “There is a widespread belief that [the federal government] does too little on issues affecting many of the groups asked about, including middle-income people (69%), those with lower incomes (66%) and retired people (65%).” Moreover, more than 60 percent say government should have a major role in a long list of policy arenas. And despite it all, voters “have a lot (17%) or some (51%) confidence in the future of the United States.”
So the public doesn’t trust the government to do the right thing most of the time, but it still wants the government to do lots of things? This wouldn’t be the first time Americans express contradictory sentiments. How can one make sense of all this?
First, one has no wonder whether “trust” in government has become akin to “liking the direction the country is heading” — a sentiment few people ascribe to. These are cynical times, when complaining about government (not to mention a great deal else) is in vogue. Reasonable expectations are unfashionable. And social media only reinforces negative attitudes, conspiracy theories and disinformation.
Second, the media plays a large role in shaping negative opinions about government and denigrating good-faith efforts at governance. Consider this recent secondary headline from the New York Times: “With their majority at stake, Democrats plan to use the six high-profile hearings to refocus voters’ attention on Republicans’ role in the attack.” That’s yet another piece of evidence showcasing reporters’ habit of casting serious, conscientious efforts as nothing more than partisan food fights.
You can find more proof by listening to the White House press corps on virtually every issue. A common question you might hear: Hasn’t the president failed to [fill in the blank of one of many complex dilemmas with no solution under his control]? The disinclination to cover substance rather than horserace politics can mislead the public as to the complexity of certain problems — and voters’ own responsibility for policy outcomes.
Third, Republicans have zero interest in improving government. They have made this clear not only through their negative views toward government, but also through their insistence on big tax cuts, efforts to interfere with important objectives (e.g., mass vaccination), conspiracy theory-mongering and pervasive sense of victimhood. The constant hysteria that MAGA pols inject into the political environment (immigrants are invading! the government is taking away your guns!) only works when they can characterize government as hostile to their base.
Finally, one must acknowledge that government has gotten plenty wrong in recent decades. A misguided war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the 2008 recession, the recent inflation surge, nonstop gun violence and the failure to arrest climate change are all legitimate reasons to despair about the effectiveness and competence of government.
Nevertheless, treating cynicism as a sign of sophistication, inciting the mob to think government is out to “replace” them or commit other wrongs, and coverage framing everything as a political stunt without acknowledging good-faith efforts at governance are corrosive to our system of self-governance. Perhaps energy would be better spent figuring out how to make government work better.