Falling Trust in Government Makes It Harder to Solve Problems, Americans Say

It will probably come as no surprise that most Americans distrust the federal government.

A new study released Monday by the Pew Research Center has found that to be true, and that Americans largely perceive trust in Washington to be shrinking. But the deep skepticism is not reserved solely for politicians, according to the survey: Almost two-thirds of respondents said they thought trust in each other had declined, too.

The report paints a rather dreary picture of how Americans today feel about their political leaders, the news media and their neighbors down the block.

“Americans are worried that distrust in the government and in others is taking a toll on the nation,” said Lee Rainie, the director of internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center. “They believe that distrust gets in the way of solving some pressing problems, that it flows from a broken political culture and that it keeps neighbors apart.”

But the report, which drew responses from 10,618 people in late 2018, also offered a few reasons for optimism. More than 8 in 10 survey respondents said they believed that trust in federal officials and confidence in each other could improve — though there was far less agreement on how that could be accomplished.

Here are a few takeaways.

Broadly speaking, about a fifth of adults displayed “consistently trustful attitudes,” roughly a third expressed consistently wary views, and the rest were somewhere in between. The researchers found that levels of personal trust were associated with race and ethnicity, age, education and household income. The share of white respondents who showed high levels of trust (27 percent), for instance, was twice as high as the share of black (13 percent) and Hispanic (12 percent) respondents combined.

In general, those who were more likely to be “high trusters” were older, more educated and had higher household incomes than “low trusters.”

“Americans who might feel disadvantaged are less likely to express generalized trust in other people,” the report said.

The generational gap in trust that emerged was especially striking. Almost half of young adults between the age of 18 and 29 fell into the low trust category. The same was true about only one-fifth of respondents 65 and older.

Over all, the Pew study found that three-quarters of Americans thought confidence in the federal government was slipping, and 64 percent said the same about trust in each other.

The survey also found that while Americans trusted each other to carry out certain civic responsibilities — like reporting serious problems to authorities, obeying laws and honestly reporting income during tax season — confidence in each other did not extend to politics.

Respondents were basically split on whether they could count on their fellow Americans to accept election results regardless of who wins. The same went for whether they could rely on others to reconsider their views after learning new information, stay informed about important issues and events and respect the rights of people who were not like them. An even higher share — 57 percent — said they were not confident that others would cast informed votes in elections.

And in disheartening news for Thanksgivings everywhere, some 58 percent of adults said they were not confident that Americans were collectively capable of holding civil conversations with people who had different views.

The news media did not fare very well in the Pew survey, either.

About two-thirds of Americans said the federal government intentionally withholds important information from the public that it could safely release, and 61 percent said the news media intentionally ignores stories that are important to the public.

About 64 percent of respondents said it was hard to tell the difference between what was true and untrue when they heard elected officials speak. Roughly half said the same thing about information they encountered on social media; and 41 percent said it was “very hard” or “somewhat hard” to distill truth from cable news.

And the survey revealed a strong partisan divide when it came to trust in journalists. Only 30 percent of Republican respondents expressed confidence in them, compared with 76 percent of Democrats.

“There hasn’t been a single positive story on President Trump,” one 56-year-old man commented to Pew Research. “He’s a patriot who had a day job already and didn’t need the mess of the presidency, but entered into it as a citizen tired of the political crap that’s infected the nation.”

On a more positive note, the survey found that strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans wished trust would rise.

More than 90 percent of both groups said they thought it was important to improve the level of confidence Americans have in government and in each other. And more than 80 percent thought such improvement was possible.

“Each one of us must reach out to others,” a 66-year-old woman told the researchers. “It takes interaction with people face-to-face to realize that we do all inhabit this space and have a vested interest in working together to make it a successful, safe, and environmentally secure place to live. No man is an island.”