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November 25, 2015

PEW RESEARCH CENTER: Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government

A year ahead of the presidential election, the American public is deeply cynical about government, politics and the nation’s elected leaders in a way that has become quite familiar, according to a new national survey by Pew Research Center.

The survey, based on more than 6,000 interviews conducted between August 27 and October 4, 2015, finds that just 19% say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century. Only 20% would describe government programs as being well-run. And elected officials are held in such low regard that 55% of the public says “ordinary Americans” would do a better job of solving national problems.

Building upon previous reports about the government’s role and performance in 2010 and 1998, the study finds that the partisan divide over the size and scope of government remains as wide as ever: Fully 80% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they prefer a smaller government with fewer services, compared with just 31% of Democrats and Democratic leaners.

Yet both Republicans and Democrats favor significant government involvement on an array of specific issues. There is bipartisan agreement that the federal government should play a major role in dealing with terrorism, natural disasters, food and medicine safety, and roads and infrastructure. And while the presidential campaign has exposed sharp partisan divisions over immigration policy, large majorities of both Republicans (85%) and Democrats (80%) say the government should have a major role in managing the immigration system.

The public finds the government frustrating and badly managed at a general level: 59% say it is in need of “very major reform,” up 22 percentage points since 1997. However at a specific level, in 10 of 13 areas included in the survey, the balance of opinion about government performance is more positive than negative. In several areas, Democrats and Republicans give the federal government similar ratings: Large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say it does a good job of responding to natural disasters (82% and 78%, respectively) and setting fair and safe standards for workplaces (79% and 77%, respectively). Roughly half in each party say the federal government does well in maintaining roads, bridges and other infrastructure (52% of Democrats, 50% Republicans) and ensuring access to high-quality education (54% of Republicans, 52% of Democrats).

However, there are substantial partisan differences in views of government performance on a pair of issues that are likely to be important in the 2016 campaign. Republicans are half as likely as Democrats to say the government does a good job in strengthening the economy (34% vs. 68%). And the gap is as large in perceptions of government performance in ensuring access to health care (40% of Republicans vs. 74% of Democrats).

Among the survey’s key findings:

Widest partisan gaps on issues relating to the social safety net. Only about a third of Republicans and Republican leaners see a major role for the federal government in helping people get out of poverty (36%) and ensuring access to health care (34%), by far the lowest percentages for any of the 13 issues tested. Fully 72% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say the government should have a major role in helping people out of poverty, and 83% say it should play a major role in ensuring access to health care. Yet overwhelming numbers of Republicans and Democrats say the federal government should have either a major or minor role on all 13 issues tested.

‘Anger’ at government and views of GOP candidates. Republicans are nearly three times as likely as Democrats to say they are angry with the government (32% vs. 12%). And among politically engaged Republicans and Democrats – those who vote frequently and follow politics on a regular basis – the gap is nearly four-to-one (42% to 11%). GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson get higher favorable ratings among Republicans who are angry at government than among non-angry Republicans, in part because they are better known among the “angry” group.

Views of government agencies. Most government agencies continue to be viewed favorably by majorities of the public. Fully 84% have a favorable view of the U.S. Postal Service – the highest rating among 17 agencies and departments tested. But just 39% have a favorable opinion of the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs, and its favorable rating has plummeted 29 percentage points since 2013.

Elected officials viewed as less honest, more selfish than typical Americans or business leaders. Just 29% say the term “honest” describes elected officials. That compares with 45% who say business leaders are honest and 69% who say the same about typical Americans. A large majority of the public (72%) also views elected officials as “selfish” – but that criticism is not unique to politicians. Comparable percentages also say the term applies to typical Americans (68%) and business leaders (67%).

Views of other national institutions. The federal government is not the only national institution viewed negatively by the public. A majority (56%) says large corporations have a negative impact on the country, while an identical percentage says the same about the entertainment industry. And nearly two-thirds (65%) say the national news media has a negative effect on the country.

Most Americans feel like ‘their side’ loses more often than it wins in politics. Overall, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say that on the issues that matter to them, their side loses more often than it wins. Just 25% say their side comes out ahead more often.

Concern about money’s influence on politics crosses party lines. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (72%) are somewhat less likely than Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (84%) to say that there should be limits on campaign spending. However, support for spending limits is high even among conservative Republicans and leaners – roughly two-thirds (68%) think there should be limits on how much individuals and organizations can spend.

The full report is for immediate release and available here.

Find an interactive timeline showing public trust in government from 1958-2015 here.

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