State Policy Network
Polling Spotlight: Rebuilding Trust in Government 
A Solution Lies at the State and Local Level

Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and Senior Director of Communications Strategies at State Policy Network.

The country seems to be in a bad mood. Americans skew pessimistic on a variety of metrics including the moral standards in the country, our education system, and our nation’s ability to get along with other countries in the world.

Source: Pew Research Center

Americans Don’t Trust the Government and Believe the Country is More Divided than Ever 

Trust in government continues to be at record low levels. Today, just 16 percent of Americans have a high degree of trust in our government—which is 20 points lower than the same metric in 1974 when the country was reeling from the Watergate scandal. It’s also 14 points lower than when Jimmy Carter declared the United States was facing a “crisis of confidence.” 

Source: Pew Research Center 

While the Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) is up in its last few monthly readings, that only brings us back on par with where we were in 2007, and key components of the organization’s future-focused index are trending in a more pessimistic direction. Furthermore, the CCI data shows two-thirds of Americans believe the US will enter a recession in the next 12 months.  

Most Americans also believe the country is more divided than usual. A YouGov survey from April 2023 shows that two-thirds of Americans believe there is more division in the country than there has been in the past. 

Source: YouGov 

Part of the mood problem is that we focus on nationwide metrics and nearly all Americans have to rely on third-party sources to know what’s happening outside of their own community. Since most media have fully embraced the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality, the result is that our perception of the state of the nation is increasingly negative.   

People also tend to see the past with rose-colored glasses. It is true that 65% of Americans today think the country is more divided than usual, but they have also felt that way for the last 45 years. Snapshots in 1979, 1996, 2000, 2009 and 2014 measure the percentage of Americans feeling “more divided” between 61% and 77%.1  

To Rebuild Trust, Americans Should Look to the State and Local Level 

But in local communities, people are more optimistic and cooperative. A recent poll by State Policy Network found that day-to-day measures of community cooperation are strong. Most Americans have someone in their life who will support them in the day-to-day roadblocks that come up in life—providing mail while they are out of town, getting a ride somewhere, or watching children in an emergency. Three-quarters of American voters have someone who would lend them $50 or join them to volunteer at a local charity. And over half of voters are friends with people they consider having extreme political positions. This is evidence of strong personal relationships and communities, even if there is skepticism in the direction of the nation or the polarization of America’s politics. 

And while people may internalize negative views of the national landscape, they also understand good things can happen in government at the local level. SPN’s research shows that 75 percent of voters think the most meaningful change happens at the local level.  

Instead of focusing on the divisive and unproductive approach to governing at the federal level, Americans should place more faith and energy into state and local governance that is built on and more responsive to the good that exists in local communities. It is unlikely federal-level politics is going to make a dramatic shift away from its current tone in a contentious election year. But we can decide to look away and be more productive closer to home.

Categories: Polling
Organization: State Policy Network