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Suddenly, Americans Trust Uncle Sam

The titles of the new releases say it all: “The Trouble with Government,” “Disaffected Democracies” and “Why People Don’t Trust Government.” This fall a host of new books with a variety of new theories tried to explain a well-established, generation-long trend: Americans’ steadily declining trust in government. Then September’s terrorist attacks turned prevailing ideas about people’s faith in their political institutions upside down, along with so much else.

The public’s reactions to the events of the last two months have been so extreme and apparently contradictory that they have sent social scientists back to the drawing boards, providing them with a real-life, real-time laboratory in which to measure the complex and often ambivalent relationship Americans have with their government.

After the attacks, arguably a result of an enormous government failure in intelligence and airport security, many Americans turned to government and found a renewed faith in some institutions that have not been held in high regard in recent decades, like Congress and the media. Within weeks, the number of people who said they trusted the government to do what is right most of the time hit its highest levels in 30 years, rising to 55 percent in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll. And suddenly a majority of Americans felt that the country was moving in the right direction, even though the stock market was falling precipitately and hundreds of thousands of workers were losing their jobs. At the same time, growing numbers of people have expressed concern about the government’s muddled reaction to the recent anthrax attacks and the uneven progress of the war. And a majority of Americans, 52 percent, still favor a smaller government providing fewer services, although the percentage of Americans who say they want a bigger government providing more services has jumped to 43 from 32.

“Trauma and war bring out communal solidarity and remind people of why we have government,” said Francis Fukuyama, professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University. “But the fact that the numbers keep moving around shows that it can be quite ephemeral. Foreign policy crises and national security threats are generally times of state-building, but only if government is seen as being effective. If we screw up the military side of things and the anthrax problem, things could change a lot.”

Pollsters are used to presidential approval ratings going up and down, but trust in government has been a much less volatile index and one that social scientists consider a more useful barometer of the public’s attitude toward government. Trust in government went up during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, but by only about 7 percentage points in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, a fraction of the recent 22-point rise.

“Part of it is rallying around the flag in a time of crisis,” said Robert Putnam, a professor of political science at Harvard University who has written extensively about the decline of trust in his book “Bowling Alone” and as editor of a recent volume titled “Disaffected Democracies,” “but part of it reflects something deeper: the only people going up the stairs of the World Trade Center while everyone else was going down were government officials. The events made us all realize the government does important work.” He was quick to add: “This is a big jump, and if it should persist, it would change the whole political climate. But no one knows how the country would react to repeated terrorist attacks.”

Mr. Putnam and other researchers say the subtler long-term effect could be a realignment of people’s attitude toward government, the beginnings of which can be seen in recent government actions: the bailout of the airline and insurance industries, disaster aid for New York City, the extension of unemployment benefits and an increased federal role in airport security.

“All of a sudden you have Republicans sounding like liberals,” said C. W. Brands, a historian at Texas A&M University and the author of a recent book, “The Strange Death of American Liberalism,” which ascribed the decline of liberalism and of trust in government to the waning of the cold war. “A crisis makes liberals out of everyone, in the sense of people seeing a positive role for government. My theory is that if this crisis persists, people will get used to the idea of looking to government to solve problems and it will spill over into other areas.”

Whatever the long-term political consequences, the events since Sept. 11 have upset the conventional thinking about Americans’ faith in their government.

When public opinion surveys began testing trust in government in the 1950’s, three-quarters of Americans responded that they expected the federal government to do the right thing most or pretty much all of the time. It was one of the highest levels in the world. Trust remained high until the early 1970’s and then dropped steadily until only one in four Americans expressed faith in their government by 1980. There have been brief rises since then — during the first Reagan administration, the second Clinton administration and in the gulf war in 1991 — but faith in government has generally remained low, dropping to 26 percent as recently as 1998, well below the most recent level of 55 percent.

The phenomenon persisted for more than a generation, and a whole industry of scholarship cropped up to try to solve the mystery of what caused Americans to distrust government. Early suggestions were the Vietnam War, the civil rights protests of the 1960’s, the Watergate scandal and economic stagnation of the 1970’s, feminism and the sexual revolution. As Garry R. Orren, a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, wrote in a 1997 book, “Why People Don’t Trust Government,” “All told, the level of mistrust nearly tripled in the decade after 1964.”

But since Watergate, surveys have detected growing distrust in government in very different parts of the world, from Western Europe and Canada to South Korea and Japan. So scholars began to look for a more general explanation, a single master theory.

“This trend is pervasive in all the industrialized nations and goes hand in hand with democratization,” Ronald Inglehart, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, said in a telephone interview.

So in just the past year, social scientists have begun to advance a host of new theories to account for the post-Watergate declines in the United States and elsewhere: the end of the cold war, television, the expanded role of government, globalization, growing income inequality and a shift in values.

Mr. Inglehart, for example, has been conducting something called the World Values Survey for nearly 30 years, trying to measure shifting public attitudes in dozens of countries around the world.

“Insecure people who are struggling with basic necessities like strong leaders and tend to idealize authority,” he said. “In the richer and more secure societies, there is a declining deference to authority. Having achieved a level of prosperity, people push for autonomy, self- expression and democracy — postindustrial values.”

Indeed, some scholars have turned the problem around and argue that the real surprise is not the low level of trust but the high degree of faith in government in the recent past. Mr. Fukuyama at Johns Hopkins said, “Most of these studies use as their base line the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the United States was just coming out of the Depression and World War II, a time when there was a lot of national unity and in which the federal government had performed very well.”

In his new book Mr. Brands of Texas A&M argues that except in periods of war — like now — Americans have always had high degrees of distrust of government. “As I studied the question,” he said in an interview, “I came to feel that distrust of government was the basic default position for the United States and that the cold war kept faith in government high and made it possible to maintain a consensus for big government.”

To conservatives like Mr. Fukuyama, government wore out people’s trust by extending its sphere of actions beyond essential functions like national defense to thorny social problems like poverty and racial injustice, which were much harder to solve through government action.

Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, argues in his new book, “The Trouble with Government,” that the American government simply did not perform as well as other large welfare states. “I think there is a real problem in terms of the government not delivering what people want,” in terms of providing good health care and education and alleviating poverty and crime, Mr. Bok said in a telephone interview.

For now, however, the expanded role of the government is likely to be most conspicuous in the area of national defense. “The creation of an Office of Homeland Security would have, a month ago, seemed to the Republican right like an Orwellian invention,” Mr. Brands said. “But in the cold war, national defense became national security and the scope broadened. Cold war liberals’ argument for the war on poverty was that it was needed to make America’s message to the world credible.”

Mr. Putnam said: “World War I and World War II made people more sympathetic to the idea of government in public policy. It created the climate for the civil rights bill and the Great Society.”

The recent volatility of the polling numbers, Mr. Fukuyama said, shows that a national crisis alone does not create trust in government: “It’s a combination of external threats and government effectiveness. The government was seen as being effective during the Depression and World War II, less so during the 1960’s.”

Moreover, Mr. Putnam said, other factors that accounted for the general decline of trust in government among industrialized nations may come back into play: “I think globalization has made it harder for any single government to achieve what its citizens want. The problems are global, but the problem-solving mechanisms at our disposals are local or national.” So if global terrorism proves beyond the scope of national government and international cooperation, it could cause trust in government to crash.

– November 11, 2001

Published at The New York Times

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