Uncle Sam Isn't a Trustworthy Dude: So What is America To Do?

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Americans’ trust in government is a quarter of what it was in the 1960s.

In a June 9 column in the Washington Post, longtime federal Insider Joe Davidson put it plainly: Uncle Sam isn’t a trustworthy dude. The column appeared just about a week before the country marked the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, a scandal that forced the resignation of a president, that is taught in schools and universities—even in Florida and Texas, at least for now—that affected our politics and our governmental system and that shaped citizen attitudes towards government ever since. Watergate represented a demarcation in the nation’s history—between a time in which citizens trusted their government and a period in which trust was broken. And it has yet to be restored. Davidson's column focused on a report from the Pew Research Center released that week in early June.

That report features a chart that tracks the decline of trust between citizens and government. The graphic begins in 1958, near the end of the Eisenhower administration—Eisenhower's vice president was Richard Nixon. Then, 73% of Americans and majorities from both parties said they trusted the government to do what is right "just about always" or "most of the time." Trust peaked at 77% in 1964, shortly after Lyndon Johnson ascended to the presidency, after the assassination of John Kennedy.

And then Johnson declined to run in 1968, the Fall of Saigon ended the Vietnam War in 1975, both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968, Watergate occured in 1972 and Nixon was impeached and then resigned in 1974.

By the end of that year, after Nixon had flown off to exile in San Clemente, California, just 36% of Americans said they trusted their government. The recent report released by Pew showed that public trust has fallen to a "disturbing" and "near historic low" of just 20%.

Alarms have sounded from multiple good government groups and leaders concerned about this decline. Trust in government is higher not only when government works better, but also when people have a better understanding of what government is doing, according to Teresa Gerton, President of the National Academy of Public Administration. President Biden's Management Agenda addresses the trust issue in its focus on improving citizen services as well as government performance.

Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, believes the negative slide in trust can be turned around if the government communicates better and promotes its successes and "the great work of career civil servants," according to Davidson’s column.

Former OMB official and now Grant-Thornton executive, Robert Shea, pointed to evidence-based policymaking as a key factor in rebuilding trust, when speaking with the Technology Policy Institute.

For Rajiv Desai of 3Di, writing in Route Fifty, the key ingredients are transparency, efficiency and accountability, orTEA. His argument resonated with me because it contained an acronym, which we all know is at the heart of the work of government. So who is right? Or are they all right? If only some are, what should be done to rebuild and restore? Let's explore the topic a bit more.

On July 5th, another venerable public polling organization,Gallup, reported that just 27% of Americans expressed confidence in their institutions—the lowest level of trust since the questions were first asked over 50 years ago. And that lack of confidence was widespread across U.S. institutions—Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, the military, business, police, media, churches, schools and more—14 institutions in all. The average confidence level—27%, as noted above—has declined from 46% in 1989. Americans also report having more animosity towards one another than they used to.

In 2019 political scientists Nathan Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason found—based on the Cooperative Congressional Election Study—that nearly half of registered voters think that the opposing party is not just bad but "downright evil"; nearly a quarter concur that, if that party's members are "going to behave badly, they should be treated like animals."  So the issue of "trust" is not reserved for just government. Levels of trust in this country—in our institutions, in our politics and in one another—are all in decline. And while opinions of individual institutions do vary among groups, the overall distrust of institutions is universal, with little variation by gender, age, race, education or even party.

Explanations are hard to come by.  One factor may be economic stagnation. Social scientists tell us that 90% of Americans born in 1940 could expect to make more than their parents; for those born in the 1980's, the rate has dropped to only 50%. Across the developed world, the poorer and less educated you are, the less trusting you tend to be. Another factor identified by Professor Benjamin Ho of Vassar College is an increase in ethnic diversity. In the U.S., he suggests, the prospect of a nonwhite majority in a country that once enslaved Black people may be intensifying tribalism. Tribalism can promote trust internally and mistrust externally—high trust within certain groups or clans and very low trust among them. And technology has made it easier for media outlets to cater to niche audiences. Doesn't it make sense in fact to place more trust in news and news sources that confirm what you already "know"? 

The partisan rancor that is so common in our country today actually makes it much harder to measure trust. Survey questions that have been part of surveys for decades (e.g., an approval rating of the president) seem much less useful nowadays, when public sentiment hinges almost entirely on partisanship. One has to wonder how trustworthy our indicators of trust are. Finally, in another take on the impact of technology, author Rachel Botsman argues that advances in IT have created a new paradigm—that of "distributed trust". In Who Can You Trust?, she suggests that the old hierarchical model in which trust was transmitted from institution to individual—think the media: CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite—has been replaced by a lateral model in which trust flows from individual to individual.

So what can we learn from the varied research on declining trust in government and how it might be restored? My conclusion is that while there are many good reasons to make government work better and to focus on improving citizen service—and we should continue to strive to do so—there isn't much evidence that we should count on any of these initiatives to change the decline noted by Pew and Gallup.

In fact, you can trust me on this. 

Alan P. Balutis is a former distinguished fellow and senior director for North American Public Sector with Cisco Systems’ Business Solutions Group.