This op-ed by SPN Senior Messaging Strategist Erin Norman first published at RealClearPolitics.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. Over the following two years, details of this scandal that originated at the very highest levels of our government trickled out to the public until President Nixon was forced to resign in August, 1974.
The encounter with a president’s open lust for power had a dramatic impact on how Americans viewed government generally. Pew Research Center has data on the amount of trust Americans have in their government to do what is right “about always” or “most of the time,” going back seventy years. In the 1950s, trust in government was high, at 73%. By the time Americans went to the polls to vote for Nixon, trust was down 11 points to 62% – due in large part to the conflict in Vietnam, showing what a large but policy-driven dip in trust can look like. By August of 1974 when Nixon resigned, just 36% of Americans had a high level of trust in the government.
Faith in our government to do the right thing never recovered. Trust eroded even further during the second half of the 1970s. For all of Reagan’s optimism and “reforming government” mantra, under his leadership trust in government never cracked 50%. In fact, it would reach levels on par with the 1950s and 1960s for only a brief moment – immediately after 9/11. Even that spike was short-lived, followed by a steady decline to 20% today.