"How much of the time do you trust the government in Washington to do what's right?"
This question, word-for-word, has been asked annually for 45 years — often much more frequently than that. Respondents are asked to choose one of three responses:
1. "Just about always," 2. "Most of the time," or 3. "Only some of the time".
The findings show a long-term trend of increasing mistrust, leading us to label this the "mistrust" question. Starting at a low of 22-23% in the years 1958-1965, "Only some of the time" climbed to a high plateau of about 79% during '93-'97. The all-time high was 82% in November 1993. Over the years '58-'97, "Most of the time" dropped from about 60% to 15%. Support for "Just about always" has been in the single digits — negligible — during the 30-year period of 1967-1997.
This growth of mistrust was by no means linear or smooth. During times of government scandals from Watergate to Whitewater, mistrust increased much more rapidly than the long-term trend line. The easiest way to understand the phenomenon is to know that mistrust resulting from major scandals peters out in a few years — not down to where it was before the scandal broke, but about half way down. Noticing this from years of survey research has yielded a public-interest polling rule of thumb, "It takes about twice the amount of good happening to produce as much increase in trust as the amount of bad to cause loss of trust." Though crude and simplistic, the public seems to believe, "Once bitten, twice shy."
In the eight-year period following — June 1993 to March 2001 — the mistrust trend line decreased slowly from 79% to 69%. The trend line is the best-fitting straight line for the mistrust question data points available from the largest polling database repository. A dozen well-respected polling organizations, most asking the question repeatedly in a series of surveys, had asked the mistrust question 42 times in that period. March 2001 was the date of the last asking prior to the event that changed the world, Sept. 11, 2001. After being asked almost monthly for the previous three years, it is odd that the mistrust question was not asked by any pollster in the six months period from March 2001 until two weeks after Sept. 11, when the Washington Post found mistrust had dropped enormously, down to 36%.
During September-December 2001, the mistrust question was asked four more times, producing "Only some of the time" support bouncing up and down a lot in the range of 31% to 53%. In view of the anthrax scares that occurred then, on top of the roller-coaster aftermath of 9/11, this rapid fluctuation was not surprising. The 31% low is 38 points below the 69% low of the trend line. For understanding public opinion under stressful conditions, these findings are very significant. Look at it this way.
After Sept. 11, for the first and only time in the 45-year history of the mistrust question, mistrust plummeted and trust in government rapidly rose for reasons having little to do with government scandals. The explanation that best fits the facts is a new public-interest poll finding, apparently unnoticed until this release today. When the homeland is as seriously threatened as it was then, about one-third of Americans who — if asked — would have previously expressed their mistrust in government, were now ready to turn around and trust the government. The government had not necessarily improved its performance in any way, but is seen as the only force realistically imaginable that could help the United States overcome such a traumatic setback.
From 2002 to today, the mistrust question has been asked in polls another seven times. Mistrust rose sharply after June 2002, up to 61%, when the United States government began focusing on Iraq. Many think an attack only tenuously and indirectly concerns homeland security. Mistrust after June was half-way back to its all time high, and more than two-thirds back to its early 2001, pre-Sept. 11 levels. It is reasonable to reduce the public's new attitude: "Mistrust is back again" to "Government? What's it done for us lately?"
A new, severe and successful al Qaeda attack on U.S. soil might quickly boost trust in government to the levels reached for the three months after Sept. 11. That would be a big boost in public support for President George W. Bush. What's good for al Qaeda turns out to be good for Bush.
It is already known that the relationship works in reverse. If public support for Bush rises, al Qaeda, at least in the Muslim world if not throughout the international community, can increasingly justify its terrorist acts in the United States. The very nature of terrorism does not discriminate between ordinary, innocent people and elites. To al Quaeda, the "innocents" are seen to be less innocent the more they support their president. Does this two-way relationship seem weird? Psychiatrists call it "co-dependency." There are other government reform findings that support such types of co-dependence.
The larger picture that emerges from a study of these findings is that responses in public-interest polls have a persistency not unlike a country's culture itself. A culture resists change. It tends to fend off novel challenges — new art, music, status attitudes, food acceptance, etc. When new developments are persistent and strong enough, aspects of culture do change, but only as little as necessary to keep most people reassured. Close study can uncover and identify these developments and their underlying factors.
Today's column illustrates that the persistence, resistance to change, and flipping as little as possible also characterize the long-term morphing of attitudes revealed by good public-interest polls.
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