Just after September 11, Washington pundits pushed a new conventional wisdom: the terrorists’ attacks had increased support for Big Government. Andrew Kohut, a public opinion analyst, gave voice to the wishful thinking of the political class: “the American public feels it needs the federal government much more than they have in a long time.” Indeed, polls at that time showed that the percentage of Americans who trust the federal government to do what is right doubled immediately after September 11.
The proponents of the new conventional wisdom predicted a sea change in American politics. A new era of federal activism, not unlike the 1960s, was at hand. The public had finally come around to support liberal aspirations.
Now a new poll by ABC News gives us a better picture of public trust in the federal government. Most polls on this issue simply ask respondents if they trust the federal government to do what is right. The ABC News poll took a different tack: they asked separate questions about national security and domestic policy. The responses are markedly different. Sixty‐eight percent said they trust the government to do what’s right “when it comes to handling national security and the war on terrorism.” Only 38 percent had the same trust “when it comes to handling social issues like the economy, health care, Social Security, and education.”
Americans trust the government a good deal — but only about national security issues. This trust is perplexing. After all, September 11 represented an enormous failure by government to provide national security. Upcoming Congressional investigations may well bring down the public’s trust in government on national security issues. In any event, the public’s newfound trust does not support an activist domestic agenda.
The poll’s findings about public trust should be put in perspective. As it happens, the 38 percent is close to the recent trend for trust in government generally: in 2000, 44 percent of Americans said they trust the federal government to do what’s right “most of the time” or “just about always.”
Trust in government has been rising lately, up from its historic low of 21 percent in 1994. The recent rise is the second one on record. Trust in the feds also jumped during Ronald Reagan’s first term, only to hit bottom in 1994. The data support three conclusions, none of which are favorable to the cause of activist government.
Expanding government undermines public trust. The clearest trend in the data on public trust is the steep decline from 1964 to 1980. These were years of an expanding activist federal government. Why would expanding government lessen public trust? The 1960s suggests some answers. Believers in activist government tend to promise too much and inevitably deliver too little. Lyndon Johnson promised to end poverty by 1966 while winning a war in Vietnam. Declining public trust in government is a rational response to government failure.
Republican revolutions raise public trust in government. The only two times trust in government has gone up immediately have followed conservative “revolutions,” the first one led by Reagan in 1980, the second by the House Republicans in 1994. Promises of smaller not bigger government seem to increase public trust.
Trends don’t go on forever. Before September 11, trust in government had risen back to the same level it had reached in 1984. But public trust may be on the edge of the same cliff it teetered on in 1984. Who’s to say the next trend in trust won’t be downward? The ABC News polls suggests that any enduring rise in public trust will be driven by faith in the Pentagon or by promises of less government by a Republican president or Congress. Republican candidates might keep that in mind during this year’s elections, but partisans of activist government can’t be pleased.
Public trust in government may well return to its pre‐September 11 level of around 40 percent. That’s well above the bottom hit during the first two Clinton years, but well below the 76 percent support registered at the start of the Great Society. In the end, terrorism may not change the flow of history and resuscitate activist government. We still live after the death of liberalism in a world where most Americans doubt that the federal government will do the right thing most of the time.