Americans Mistrustful, Angry ... As Always

Jeff Alworth

Pew released the results of a poll today with a blockbuster lede:

By almost every conceivable measure Americans are less positive and more critical of government these days. A new Pew Research Center survey finds a perfect storm of conditions associated with distrust of government -- a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials. Rather than an activist government to deal with the nation's top problems, the public now wants government reformed and growing numbers want its power curtailed.

I love Pew polls (as Kari teased me via email this morning)--they have the best methodology, wonderfully nuanced questions, and huge samples. So it was with haste that I made for the results (.pdf)--only to find that all this "distrust, discontent, anger, and partisan rancor" was, well, pretty much par for the course. True, things are a bit worse now, but what's shocking is that they've been bad for a long time. Have a look at a few examples:

Overall, are you satisfied with the country today?
Mar 2010: 25% satisfied, 69% dissatisfied
Jan 2009: 20% satisfied, 73% dissatisfied
Feb 2008: 24% satisfied, 70% dissatisfied
Jan 2007: 30% satisfied, 64% dissatisfied

Should Congress as a group be re-elected?
2010: 27% yes, 57% no
2008: 36% yes, 49% no
2006: 36% yes, 49% no
2002: 39% yes, 38% no

Are you basically content, frustrated or angry with the government?
2010: 19% content, 56% frustrated, 21% angry
2007: 21% content, 58% frustrated, 16% angry
2004: 32% content, 52% frustrated, 13% angry
1997: 29% content, 56% frustrated, 12% angry

Trust Washington to do what's right?
2010: 22% always/mostly, 65% just sometimes
2007: 31% always/mostly, 63% just sometimes
2004: 36% always/mostly, 59% just sometimes
1998: 26% always/mostly, 61% just sometimes

Cut back government or maintain as it is?
2010: 47% cut back, 50% maintain
2007: 41% cut back, 57% maintain
(No intervening years noted)

Now, it's worth noting that there are a few outliers. For the past decade, approval of how things are going at the state level have fluctuated between 53%-65% and this year they're 38%. Only 43% of voters think their representative should be re-elected, the first time it has been below 50% since (cue the grim music) early 1994. (Worse, by November that number was back up to 58%.)

And there are other important findings. When asked what the most important priorities for the government should be, this is what Pew found (with first and second priorities grouped together):

78% - The jobs situation
49% - Health care costs
40% - Financial reform

This suggests that health care reform may not be the killer to Dems everyone says--but also that financial reform may not be the ace in the hole.

So in sum: Americans have been pretty down on government for the better part of a decade and a half. Things are worse now than they have been, but not sharply so. And in the end, the economy is the biggest factor in all of this. (Go figure.)

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    I guess it's never that surprising. 30 years of politicians thumping the anti-government line was bound to have psychologically conditioned a pretty large number of people into being afraid of the government. The only way that's getting overturned is if an equally ubiquitous message that points the blame at corporations that would rather offshore your job than pay people a wage with cost of living increases. But the government kinda screwed themselves that way by passing free trade agreements and appearing to be in cohorts with the worst I guess if you really want those poll numbers to improve, you'd have to start with fixing that problem (the corrupt trade agreements, of course...and after that, figuring out how to nullify the Citizen's United decision and prevent politicians from soaking up big donations...that seems more than a little untrustworthy to most folks, too).

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    I think Steve Benen at Washington Monthly Blog said it best:

    “If you were to make a Venn Diagram of the issues Tea Party members care about, and the issues Tea Party members are confused about, you’d only see one circle.”

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    I think there is an increasing knowledge regarding the principles of what is good government. People are starting to figure out if you use government to implement your own social agenda it will backfire on you someday. If government were limited to what it's true function is of protecting life liberty and property and not taking a pro active role in every issue, there would be less toes stepped on and less anger. People who have something taken away (ei money or social freedom) are always more angry than those who do not get benefits they did not already have.

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    First, where is the methodology broken down?

    I see that Pew did state in the bottom of the article that it was done across the US with both land line and cell phone.

    If you poll mainly land line, then your sample tends to be older (age 60+) and female. In contrast, if you poll cell phone users, your sample tends to be working age and not as likely to vote.


    Second, in the methodology, why did they not list whether they got a 50/50 break in their results of land line and cell phone users? I am fairly certain those of us who are cell phone users only tend to be working, don't have time to answer their stupid questions, and tend to hang up when we hear the "Hello this is an automated poll from the Pew Research...."

    Working people have sh*t to do and spending 15 to 30 minutes after work answering an automated poll is not one of them. Henceforth, those who are older, spend a considerable amount of time watching their Fox News or MSNBC, and call up their old war friend "Vince" are overwhelmingly disproportionately represented in automated telephone polls.

    Yes, older people tend to vote more. However, is it their opinion we want because we can get a higher feedback rate from them or do we want the opinion of those who are working in the world they created long after they are dead in 20 to 30 years?

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    Ryan, Pew has done extensive work on looking at the effect of cell phones. Have a look here:

    No polling firm does a more careful job trying to match their polls with the population (be it the general population or likely voters). In this case, the sample was not of voters, but citizens.

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      Thanks Jeff, this was not apparent in the link.

      Looking at it, Pew like Rasmussen and the others may be under polling cell phone users, while simultaneously over polling land line users.

      I stand my unfounded claim that cell phone/land line users have a land line because Comcast's merger with AT&T has hamstrung them into getting a land line for high speed internet, are more representative of the voting age population who will feel the effect of today's policies 20 to 30 years out. If Comcast allowed high speed internet without requiring the tv or land line bundle, then you would see a drastic drop in land line use across the United States.

      Does anyone know of a pollster who goes out of their way to sample cell phone only users first?

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    Without questioning the validity of any of what has been said, how about considering the leftist version of the same thing?

    Nixon was a crook. We rose up and elected a "good man", in Jimmy Carter. The Church Commission, coupled with Watergate proved that gov was bad.

    Americans shrank away in horror from Carter's vision, and opted for "Morning In America" with Reagan. Since then, we've seen a slow return to the criminal Nixon days. That is why the left distrusts gov.

    QED?, that distrust in gov does not equal irrational fanaticism.

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