65% say most political candidates run for office ‘to serve their own personal interests’

Pew Research Center conducted this study to better understand Americans’ attitudes about U.S. government. For this analysis, we surveyed 5,074 U.S. adults in April and May 2022. Everyone who took part in this survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

Here are the questions used for the report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Americans remain deeply distrustful of and dissatisfied with their government. Just 20% say they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing just about always or most of the time – a sentiment that has changed very little since former President George W. Bush’s second term in office.

Chart shows low public trust in federal government has persisted for nearly two decades

The public’s criticisms of the federal government are many and varied. Some are familiar: Just 6% say the phrase “careful with taxpayer money” describes the federal government extremely or very well; another 21% say this describes the government somewhat well. A comparably small share (only 8%) describes the government as being responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans.

The federal government gets mixed ratings for its handling of specific issues. Evaluations are highly positive in some respects, including for responding to natural disasters (70% say the government does a good job of this) and keeping the country safe from terrorism (68%). However, only about a quarter of Americans say the government has done a good job managing the immigration system and helping people get out of poverty (24% each). And the share giving the government a positive rating for strengthening the economy has declined 17 percentage points since 2020, from 54% to 37%.

Yet Americans’ unhappiness with government has long coexisted with their continued support for government having a substantial role in many realms. And when asked how much the federal government does to address the concerns of various groups in the United States, there is a widespread belief that it does too little on issues affecting many of the groups asked about, including middle-income people (69%), those with lower incomes (66%) and retired people (65%).

Chart shows majorities of Americans say federal government does too little to address issues affecting several groups, including lower- and middle-income people, retirees

Among 11 groups included in the survey, the only group about which a majority of adults (61%) say the government does too much for are high-income people.

Republicans and Democrats generally agree that the government does too little regarding issues of concern for several groups, including retirees, rural residents, suburbanites and middle-income people. And nearly identical shares of both Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party (52%) and Democrats and Democratic leaners (56%) say it does too little on issues affecting “people like you.”

However, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say the government does too little on issues impacting children (63% of Democrats vs. 44% of Republicans) and parents (49% vs. 41%). And while 43% of Democrats say the federal government does too little on issues affecting people in cities, just 27% of Republicans say the same. Democrats (79%) also are considerably more likely than Republicans (50%) to say the government does too little to address issues facing lower-income people.

Chart shows broad public support for the federal government having a ‘major role’ in many different areas

The public’s attitudes on the overall size and scope of government – and whether the government should have a “major role” in specific issue areas – have changed little in recent years. Clear majorities of Americans (60% or more) say the government should have a major role in 11 of 12 issue domains included in the new survey – including terrorism, immigration and the economy, as well as ensuring access to health care and protecting the environment. The only exception is for helping people out of poverty (52% say it should have a major role).

Republicans are less likely than Democrats to favor a major role for government in most areas; this is especially – and increasingly – the case for alleviating poverty. Still, majorities of Republicans favor a major role for government in eight of the 12 areas. Majorities of Democrats say the government should have a major role in all 12.

These are among the findings from a new Pew Research Center survey conducted April 25-May 1, 2022, among 5,074 U.S. adults on the Center’s nationally representative Americans Trends Panel. The study builds upon the Center’s previous reports about the government’s role and performance, most recently published in 2020 and 2017.

As in the past, state and local governments are viewed more favorably than the federal government. Yet amid controversies over state policies on issues ranging from abortion to the textbooks used in public schools, the relationship between the federal government and state governments has raised a number of differing concerns among the public. (Note: This survey was conducted before the leak of a draft opinion from the Supreme Court indicating that the court is likely to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, which guarantees access to abortion. For more on public attitudes toward abortion, see “America’s Abortion Quandary”).

Chart shows prior to leak of Supreme Court’s draft abortion opinion, Democrats expressed greater concern than Republicans that people’s rights could vary by state

About a third of Americans (34%) are extremely or very concerned that the federal government is doing too much on issues better left to state governments; another 35% are somewhat concerned about this. An identical share expresses an entirely different concern – that state governments are not willing enough to work with the federal government (34% say they are extremely or very concerned about this).

Republicans (54%) are far more likely than Democrats (18%) to say they are extremely or very concerned that the federal government is doing too much on issues better left to the states. Democrats are more likely to say they are extremely or very concerned about states being uncooperative with the federal government (48% vs. 18%).

Moreover, about half of Democrats (53%) say they are extremely or very concerned that an individual’s rights and protections may vary depending on the state in which they live. By contrast, a smaller share of Republicans (33%) have a similar level of concern that a person’s rights may vary by state.

Other important findings

Low trust in government among members of both parties. As in the past, trust in government is higher among the party of the president than among the “out” party; still, only 29% of Democrats and just 9% of Republicans say they trust the government just about always or most of the time. The share of Republicans expressing trust in the federal government is currently as low as it has been at any point in the last 60 years; levels of trust among Democrats reached historic lows during George W. Bush’s and Donald Trump’s presidencies. (For more, see this interactive on public trust in government, 1958-2022.)

In their own words – how people feel about government performance. When asked to name, in their own words, areas where the federal government is doing a bad job, people cite a number of issues, including taxes and spending, immigration (with some specifically citing the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border) and social welfare programs. When asked about where the government is doing a good job, people also cite multiple issues; national security and foreign policy are mentioned most often.

Chart shows sharp partisan divide on whether it is government’s job ‘to protect people from themselves’

Most say laws are needed to protect people from themselves. Republicans and Democrats have fundamental differences of opinion about the government’s role in protecting Americans. Among the public overall, 59% say that sometimes laws are needed to protect people from themselves; 39% say it is not the government’s job to protect people from themselves. A 61% majority of Republicans say it’s not the government’s job to protect people from themselves; an even larger majority of Democrats (77%) say laws are sometime needed for that purpose.

Chart shows more confidence in career govt. workers than in political appointees

Declining confidence in career government employees. A larger share of adults say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in career employees at federal agencies (52%) than in officials appointed by the president to oversee agencies (39%). However, the share expressing confidence in career employees has declined 9 points since 2018; there has been less change in confidence in political appointees.

Political candidates seen as motivated by their own interests, less by serving their communities. As the 2022 political campaigns heat up, 65% of adults – including nearly identical shares in both parties – say that all (15%) or most people (50%) who seek office at the local, state or federal level do so to serve their own personal interests. By contrast, just 21% say all or most people who run for office do so in order to serve their communities.

Most Americans have at least some confidence in nation’s future. Only about a quarter of adults (24%) say they are satisfied with the current state of the nation, and the public views a number of problems – especially inflation – as serious. Yet a majority of Americans continue to say they have a lot (17%) or some (51%) confidence in the future of the United States. These views have changed little since 2021.