November 23, 2015

6 key takeaways about how Americans view their government

Our fall 2015 survey found widespread discontent with the federal government, including deep distrust in government and considerable cynicism about politics and elected officials alike. But despite these negative assessments, majorities believe government does a good job on many issues and want it to have a major role on a wide range of policy areas.

Here are six key takeaways from the report:

1The public’s trust in government remains at historic lows. Today, just 19% say they trust the federal government to do what is right always or most of the time, which is little changed from recent years. Fewer than three-in-ten Americans have expressed trust in government in every major national poll conducted since July 2007 – the longest period of low trust in government seen in more than 50 years.

While Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they trust the government, trust remains low across partisan lines: Just 11% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they trust the government, compared with 26% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. (For more on the public’s trust in government, see this interactive.)

2As in the past, the public’s feelings about government run more toward frustration than anger. Currently, 57% are frustrated with the federal government; 22% are angry, while 18% are basically content.

Far more Republicans (32%) than Democrats (12%) say they are angry with the government. But higher shares in both parties expressed anger toward government in October 2013, during the partial government shutdown.

While anger at government has been higher among Republicans than Democrats during Barack Obama’s administration, the situation was reversed during George W. Bush’s presidency: In October 2006, 29% of Democrats said they were angry with government, compared with just 9% of Republicans.

3Despite their widespread cynicism, most Americans give government good ratings in a number of areas. Half or more say the federal government is doing a “very good” or “somewhat good” job in 10 of the 13 governmental functions tested in the survey.

However, the federal government receives particularly low marks in two key areas: Managing the nation’s immigration system and helping people get out of poverty. Nearly seven-in-ten (68%) say the government does a very or somewhat bad job in managing the immigration system; just 28% say it is doing a good job. Ratings are nearly as negative when it comes to the federal government’s efforts to help people get out of poverty: 61% say the government is doing a bad job in this area, while 36% give it a positive assessment.

Majorities say the government should have a major role in dealing with 12 of 13 issues included in the survey.

4Americans are harshly critical of elected officials. The public views politicians as more selfish and considerably less honest than ordinary Americans. Just 29% say that “honest” describes elected officials very or fairly well, a much smaller share than those who describe the average American as honest (69%).

Most people do say the term “intelligent” describes elected officials very or fairly well (67%). However, just as many view the typical American as intelligent. And when asked if elected officials or ordinary Americans could do a better job of solving the nation’s problems, 55% say ordinary Americans could do better.

While negative opinions of politicians are not new, the perception that elected officials don’t care about what people think is now held more widely than it has been in recent years. Today, 74% say this, compared with a narrower 55% majority who said the same in 2000.

5Congress is not the only institution the public sees as having a negative influence on how things are going in the country today. Majorities see the national news media (65%) and the entertainment industry (56%) as having a negative impact on the country. By contrast, overwhelming majorities see small businesses (82%) and technology companies (71%) as having a positive impact.

There are substantial partisan and ideological divides in the views of several of these institutions. For example, nearly seven-in-ten liberal Democrats (69%) say colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country, compared with just less than half (48%) of conservative Republicans. Conversely, fully three-quarters of conservative Republicans say that churches and religious organizations have a positive impact on the country, while just 41% of liberal Democrats agree.

6“Angry” Republicans view Jeb Bush less favorably than several other GOP candidates. Among the nearly one-third of Republicans and leaners who say they are angry with government, about six-in-ten or more say they have favorable views of Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. However, just 36% of Republicans who express anger toward government view Jeb Bush favorably, while 57% express an unfavorable opinion of him.

Topics: Trust in Government

  1. Photo of Samantha Smith

    is a research assistant focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Tom Bryan2 years ago

    The results show the Republican Party’s relentless and frequently inaccurate and overly harsh criticism of government during Obama’s tenure has worked. The government has not worked well for the last 6-7 years and a significant reason for that is the Republican Party’s decision that attacking the Obama presidency is preferable to working with the president to solve serious problems facing normal Americans. I did not vote for Obama but find my former party’s behavior to be reprehensible and clearly unamerican. As an independent, I struggle to find optimism about America’s future solely because of the self centered and largley worthless national politicians.

  2. Agnes2 years ago

    My distrust of government comes from regulatory capture, that is political corruption that occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.
    This stems from the revolving door between most regulatory agencies and those they are appointed to oversee.
    but by far the worse, at least on a federal level is the FERC. They rubber stamp every fossil fuel project submitted.

  3. Packard Day2 years ago

    This administration has lied under oath (e.g. Former Attorney General Eric Holder & current Director of National Intelligence James Clapper) before congress without consequence. Fast & Furious, Benghazi, Lois Lerner, the IRS, Hillary Clinton’s private server, the Secret Service, the VA, the EPA, OPM, HHS, TSA, DOD, NSA, Obamacare, the State Department, an $18.5 trillion national debt, and a curious incapacity to utter the words “Islamic” and “terrorism” in a simple sentence aside, what more does one need to understand the lack of trust for our first constitutional scholar President or his loyal supplicants? Res ipsa loquitur.

    1. Troy Turton2 years ago

      I’m sure if I felt like it. I could come up with a list at least as long as yours ( if not longer ) about all the wrong doings of the 3 GOP presidents we’ve had since 1980.