Who Do You Trust?

April 20, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last August, I said here that the TeaBaggers and other angry Republicans didn’t really believe in democracy. They don’t seem to accept the idea that the person who gets the most votes gets to be president. To them, Obama is an illegitimate usurper. He’s not the “real” president. And the people who voted for him are not “the real America.”

The recent Pew report on trust in government provides some support for this idea. The report also shows that these sentiments didn’t arise just with the Obama presidency. Generally, Democrats are more accepting of Republican administrations than are Republicans of Democrats.
The Pew survey did not ask about “legitimacy.” Instead, the key question is about “trust.” It asks whether the government in Washington can be trusted to do the right thing. The graph below shows the percent who answered either “always” or “most of the time.”

The trend is downward, and Democrats and Independents are generally not far apart in their levels of trust. Republicans are subject to greater mood swings.

Pew suggests that the low level of trust will translate into a loss of seats for incumbents come November. Political scientists, like John Sides at The Monkey Cage , suspect that if the economy bounces back, people will become more trusting of incumbent Democrats, or at least trust them enough to vote for them.
If the economy is the key, the Democrats may not have to fix the government to mitigate their losses in 2010, simply preside over an improving economy.
But when I look at the graph, I see Republicans whose trust of Republicans and distrust of Democrats seem impervious to economic winds. Look at the two previous presidencies. The Clinton era was, by any economic measure, a period of great economic prosperity. The Bush years, by contrast, started with a recession, continued with flat or slightly declining income for all but the top earners, and ended with the worst economic disaster since the Depression. Yet Republicans were twice as trusting of George W. Bush as they were of Bill Clinton.


PCM said...

Tea party talk of "reclaiming" America scares me a bit. Reclaim from whom? The majority?

I guess it goes with the idea that there there can be only one vision of what America should be (their vision, naturally), and thus any deviation from that vision is un-American. Democracy be damned.

Unknown said...

Interesting....the "trust" trend changed following the Watergate Incident and the Committee to Re-elect the President. For those too young to remember that was during the Richard M. Nixon Administration (January 20, 1969 – August 9, 1974).

Jay Livingston said...

I think that the data show only the overall average trust rating for each presidential term. That doesn't allow us to see the Watergate effect -- the difference between the ratings for pre-Watergate Nixon and post-Watergate Ford. Or between Bush just after 9/11 and Bush in 2008.