Experts say distrust of federal government tied to abuses, long terms

Posted April 30, 2019

Americans’ trust in the federal government has generally been decreasing since 2001, according to recent reports from the Pew Research Center, and the United States trails most developed nations in voter turnout, too.

Christopher Simer, a UW-River Falls political science lecturer, said he believes distrust in government might stem from abuses of power.

“Private institutions have increasingly been viewed as operating under the agenda that does not necessarily improve the lives of the average person,” Simer said. “We’ve seen a steady erosion in a lot of our institutions.”

State Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls) said that a major contributing factor to overall distrust in the government is elected representatives focusing too heavily on polling.

“Too often our elected leaders are more interested in making sure they get elected in the next cycle than necessarily doing the right things,” Zimmerman said.

Government distrust at a national level for all generations of Americans is currently below 20 percent, with millennials (those born from 1981-1996) having the most trust with 19 percent and baby boomers (those born from 1946-1964) hovering at 16 percent.

It has been nearly a decade since millennials have eclipsed 40 percent trust in the government in Washington D.C., and Generation X and boomers have not gone over that same mark since October 2004.

“It’s hard to trust Congress and such when you look around and there is example after example where sometimes government is doing something really stupid,” Zimmerman said.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the levels of distrust in government, roughly 56 percent of Americans voted in the 2016 presidential elections. While this only represents a slight decrease from the percentage of voters who cast ballots in the 2008 presidential elections, it puts the United States behind other developed nations in voter turnout. The U.S. ranks behind countries such as Germany, France, Mexico and Estonia.

Simer said that the 2016 election was “kind of an anomaly” and that voter turnout can be affected by the different thresholds for voting and political engagement.

“In some cases, people are just disinterested or disengaged, for example some countries make it mandatory to vote,” he said. “In the United States it’s an interesting question. How can you force somebody to care?”

Zimmerman said voter turnout is the “result of ultra-polarization.” While America has low voter turnout relative to other developed nations, Zimmerman contends that the ultra-polarization and “pushing of the envelope” helps boost voting turnout.

“It’s a good thing if your only objective is turning out greater voting numbers,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t think it’s a good thing or a healthy thing for us as a nation because I think ultra-polarization only further divides us and that’s not good or helpful.”

Simer said turnout in the U.S. boils down to individual choices of voters.

“It’s sort of legendary that oddly enough young people tend to have other interests than going to the polls, and disproportionately people who are retired pay much more attention and have the leisure time to participate,” Simer said.

Despite low voter turnout and an overall distrust in national government, the numbers look noticeably different at the state and local levels. According to a 2016 Gallup Poll, 62 percent of Americans trust state government to solve their problems, with 71 percent expecting the same of their local government. Since 1998, Republicans have typically had the most trust in state government with Democrats and Independents following in that order.

For the November 2018 general elections, Wisconsin had the fourth highest voter turnout of any state with 61.7 percent, according to University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald.

Even for the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections there was disparity in voter turnout in parts of western Wisconsin, with Pierce County having a 66 percent voter turnout, 10 percentage points higher than the national average. However, the City of River Falls during this time span saw a voter turnout of 53.9 percent.

Regarding trust in government, Zimmerman said, “Trust is earned, and I think those elected have to realize that. They have to start to make better decisions.”

Trust can be broken quickly and takes time to rebuild, Zimmerman added. He said he thinks that one way to improve trust is to have members of Congress serve shorter terms.

“You’ve got people in there that have been serving in there for 30-plus years. No. 1, they are disconnected from reality. There is no way they understand at a tactical level what’s happening in their economy and in their communities,” Zimmerman said.

Simer said that the burden of regaining the trust of the citizens is on the government entities, not on the citizens. He added that it’s hard to overly generalize trust in the government when it comes to certain institutions. He cited the military as an example of a government sector that has traditionally high approval ratings.

Simer also mentioned trust in the IRS, saying, “I have complete confidence that the Internal Revenue Service will know whether or not I have paid my taxes, so I have complete confidence in that.”