There has been a rapid decline in trust in all aspects of American society since the pandemic first started, accelerating a longer downward trend that has been evident since the early 1960s. Pew Research’s historical data shows that public trust in government has fallen 49 points since 1958 (from 73% to 24%). The current of level of trust the government is 12 points lower than when President Ford took over for the disgraced Richard Nixon.
State Policy Network has been tracking trust in government and civic institutions since the pandemic shut down our nation in March of 2020. Our data also shows a steep and significant decline in public trust in the last 20 months. Fewer than one-in four now have a significant amount of trust in any level of government or the media organizations that we have historically relied on as government watchdogs.
Trust in local governments is currently lower in the 35-44 (17%) and 45-54 (18%) age brackets, and particularly among women (14% vs. 21% for similarly aged men). This may be in part due to local communities’ management of public schools during the pandemic. Local government is the level favored most by political Independents, but just 14% have a high degree of trust in their locally elected officials, which is nearly double the 8% who have trust in their state and the federal government.
Trust in a variety of governmental and civic institutions is higher among registered voters. Gaps between Americans registered to vote and those who are not are relatively small for government and media entities but significantly higher among physicians, hospitals and public health organizations. The more these institutions become entangled with government, which has happened significantly during the pandemic, the more they are viewed through the same distrustful lens Americans apply to government.
Trust specifically in our electoral process has also declined since May of 2020. Even before the turmoil of the 2020 elections, less than half of registered voters had trust in the electoral system and processes at any level. Fewer than one-in-five believed elected politicians represented the people who put them in office. A year on from the 2020 Presidential election, those numbers have fallen further.
Interestingly, Democrats lost the most trust in our electoral systems between May 2020 and November 2021. While Democrats have more trust in all aspects of our system than Republicans and Independents, today only half of Democrats trust each level of election processes and results and one-in-five believe politicians represent the people who elected them. Republicans and Independents have been and still are far more skeptical of election processes but have lost less faith over the last 18 months. Independents are actually slightly more optimistic about state and federal elections compared to May 2020.
Disengaged Americans, such as those who don’t participate in the electoral system, are more skeptical of all American institutions. The question is raised, are these people less trustful in general or have they backed away from participation because their trust was broken?
Trust in the electoral system is significantly higher among Americans who believe local engagement is critical for our system of government and who want to be more engaged in their local community. With trust in our institutions low and falling, it is critical we engage Americans in their local community as part of the process of rebuilding trust in our systems and processes.
Fortunately, hope is not lost. The Network can play a crucial role in rebuilding Americans’ trust by educating citizens about their opportunities to engage more deeply, and by holding elected officials accountable. Americans agree on more than it seems, and we can remind each other of this fact by engaging more deeply with our communities and returning our country to its principles of self-government. Learn more about how Americans can reclaim our right to self-government and strengthen the community bonds that lead to a deeper trust between our citizens.