Poll: Americans' Trust in Government Grows
Confidence in Government More Than Doubles Since April 2000

By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 28, 2001; 6:20 PM

For the first time in three decades, a majority of Americans now say they trust the federal government to "do what is right" – a stunning but perhaps temporary reversal in the way that citizens view their government, elected leaders and political institutions, according to a new Washington Post survey.

Nearly two in three Americans said they trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing either "just about always" or "most of the time," the poll found. That's more than double the percentage who expressed similar levels of confidence in a Post-ABC News survey in April of 2000. And it's more than three times the proportion who trusted the federal government at the height of the Republican Revolution in 1994 when faith in Washington was the lowest ever recorded.

"I think there is the potential that Sept. 11 will turn out to be a turning point for civic America," said Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam whose book "Bowling Alone" last year documented the decline in civic engagement and trust. "It's a horrible tragedy, but there could be some good coming from it if it causes us to become more connected with one another, more aware of our dependence on other people, more aware of the obligations we have to other people and more open minded about the role of government."

But will it happen? "I think the answer to that question is open," Putnam said. "This could vanish in the blink of an eye."

A total of 1,215 randomly selected adults were interviewed Tuesday through Thursday for this survey. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other public opinion poll.

Complete results of The Post survey, including President Bush's overall job approval rating and the public's view of what the United States must accomplish in order to claim victory in the war on terrorism, are available here.

The survey found that 64 percent of Americans trusted the federal government nearly always (13 percent) or most of the time (51 percent). Another 35 percent said they trusted government "only some of the time" and 1 percent said never.

Those results mark the highest level of government trust since 1966, when surveys conducted by the University of Michigan in every election year since 1958 began to document an alarming collapse of confidence in government.

The survey suggests that public attitudes toward government have been lifted by the surge of national pride and purpose that has swept the country since this month's suicide assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"I have a renewed respect for the federal government. Absolutely," said Robyn Webb, 26, a high school math teacher who lives in Mount Laurel, N.J. After the terrorist attacks, she said, "People see that the government is one of the only avenues we have to get some things done. It puts renewed hope about the government and their capabilities to do things."

For others, their faith in government is less absolute. Tim Higgins, 44, a computer systems analyst living in Rolling Meadows, Ill., strongly supports the way the federal government is handling the response to the terrorist attacks.

But, he adds: "I don't trust them to do the right thing when it comes to education or health care. I'm thinking more of this military situation and this particular action. . . . But I don't think I have changed my opinion on any of the other aspects, on mistrust of the government in general" – a view that suggests the spike up in support for government may erode when public attention shifts away from terrorism and to more politically divisive issues as how to handle the economic slowdown, education reform and health care.

In the early 1960s, the Michigan surveys found that more than seven in 10 Americans expressed confidence in the federal government, peaking at 76 percent in 1964. But in 1966, the proportion of those with such faith dropped to 65 percent and fell below 50 percent after 1972. It continued to fall steadily for the next two decades, dragged down first by Vietnam, then by Watergate, then by a succession of campaign finance scandals and the unsuccessful presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Not all students of public opinion think the current wave of positive feelings will last.

"It's not unusual even in recent history to see some jumps in trust in times of threat, crisis and mobilization," said Wendy Rahn, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, who studies trust in government. "The Gulf War is a case in point. Presidential approval and indicators of confidence in government seemed to have become much more positive, even in the midst of the 1991 recession. But . . . as people focused more on economic problems, and then on crime, that really worked to depress their confidence," and the measures dropped back down.

"The caveat is that the mobilization and the coming together [over the past few weeks] has been unprecedented. So there may be some lasting effect."

Others are more optimistic. "These events should have a positive effect on attitudes toward government, a galvanizing effect, bringing people together and showing them the relevance of government," said James Campbell, a political science professor at SUNY-Buffalo. "For decades, Americans could take public business for granted, things would be running smoothly, so why care? This draws our attention back to the reasons why we have a government."

Campbell has studied the increase in support that a presidential candidate receives following his party's presidential conventions – the so-called post-convention "bounce." While most of this surge dissipates║ some is retained, suggesting that not all the current support for government may be lost.

The Post poll found that this new confidence in government is broadly felt. Roughly equal proportions of men and women, rich and poor, Southerners and residents of the northeast, now say they trust the government to do the right thing at least most of the time. Big majorities of Republicans (73 percent), Democrats (61 percent) and political independents (62 percent) also say they're trusting of government.

Faith in government has increased dramatically among whites, from 28 percent in April of 2000 to 65 percent in the most recent Post poll. A majority of blacks also support the government, although there were too few African Americans in the survey to reliably characterize their views.

Harvard's Putnam said there is a real chance that at least a portion of the recent gains in public confidence and civic engagement can be retained, but only if political leaders, civic and religious groups work quickly to harness the current wave of good feelings sweeping the country.

He said community leaders in Oklahoma City told him that civic pride there spiked immediately after the bombing of the Federal Building six years ago – only to quickly fade.

"If this war that we're girding for turns out to be merely a video war, something we see on television, then these favorable trends will not last," he said. "It's worthwhile for the administration to think about ways to harness the desire of people to do something in their daily lives, to help country," similar to the way that Victory Gardens, paper drives and similar community-wide activities connected citizens in World War II to each other and to their government.

"It's not by words alone, but by deeds that we re-catch the habit of connectedness."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company