Much ado was made recently over a new national survey, which was widely reported as evidence of a new low in the American public’s trust in the federal government.


Much ado was made recently over a new national survey, which was widely reported as evidence of a new low in the American public’s trust in the federal government.

But historical context almost always provides a calming effect. And Tea Party enthusiasts need to cool their jets if they think that some unprecedented revolutionary moment has been reached, or that this poll result is all about a rejection of federal health care reform.

A more careful look at the details provided in the report by the highly regarded Pew Research Center reveals that this new low is actually about the same as it was toward the end of the deep recessions of the early 1980s and the early 1990s.

Moreover, the chart shows that faith in government tended to recover as the private sector and job growth rebounded, unfair as that might seem to those who value the government’s role as both watchdog and frequent savior of the private sector.

In 1994, in “trust” surveys taken by Pew and other reputable pollsters, only about 20 percent of Americans said they trusted the “government in Washington to do the right thing … all or most of the time.”

According to the Pew chart, the all-time low of 17 percent approval occurred twice: In June of 1994 as President Clinton was still struggling under a weak economy and trying unsuccessfully to enact health care reform, and in October of 2008, right after the Wall Street meltdown and the immediate bailout initiated under President Bush.

This correlation between hard times in the private sector and faith in the government is paradoxical. Although the public sector and government play the role of regulatory watchdog — and the role of a rescuer obligated to clean up the messes left by private-sector failure — the government apparently gets blamed just as much for joblessness and the collapsing bubbles as the capitalists themselves.

In 1994, the stock market actually was recovering under a fairly new president. But many or most ordinary Americans then and now were still hurting from a severe recession that began under the administration of the previous president.

Then as now, it wasn’t government officials who were laying workers off by the millions and defrauding or bankrupting investors. The economy was brought low by a combination of irrational exuberances, a speculative bubble, and outright stealing and illegality by some business moguls.

Government and Federal Reserve Board management of the economy deserves some measure of responsibility, along with congressional actions that set up incentives for unsustainable home mortgages, among other errors. But blaming the cops entirely for the behavior of the robbers, as some free-market ideologues do, doesn’t make perfect sense.

Also in 1994, as now, irresponsible anti-government talk show hosts were foaming at the mouth, conspiracy theories about black helicopters were proliferating and right-wing militia groups were forming in Idaho and Montana. About this time in 1994, Timothy McVeigh, motivated by hatred of the federal government, was planning his attack on the Oklahoma City federal building.

Anti-government bile was so prevalent that I was inspired in early 1994, as a Star-Tribune reporter, to write a three-part series, “The Good that Government Does.” I dusted it off recently, and was immediately struck by how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The series pointed out that polls showed most Americans were actually fairly satisfied with the individual services and investments that government provides — from schools and colleges, to roads, to Social Security and Medicare, to state and federal help for our elderly with their nursing home assistance, to parks and the National Guard.

Simultaneously, I noted, anti-tax attitudes were pervasive and “this conflict (between demand for government and hostility to taxes) is a conundrum that befuddles politicians from the township board to the U.S. Senate.”

Citizens actually want and expect their government to provide intervention and economic relief in hard times, even as their trust in that institution declines. Or as “Atlantic Magazine” writer Derek Thompson asked in commentary on the Pew survey: “What does it mean that we’ve become a country that expects a government we don’t trust to provide growing benefits from taxes we don’t want to pay?”