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Over a half-century ago about 75% of Americans said they trusted government “always or most of the time.” The number stood at 24% earlier this year—a 50% drop in 50 years. That’s according to a report released recently by The Pew Center for Research.

It’s not as though the trust number has been declining steadily since the late ‘50s. It has gone up and down significantly over the decades. What’s the story?

The number is higher when people feel good about America and their place in it. Modern America was built in the ‘50s and ‘60s and notable national programs were launched. The trust number rose gradually over those years until it reached an all-time high (77%) in 1964. But warweariness and scandal followed. Trust was cut in half (to 36%) by the time President Nixon resigned office in 1974.

A shaky national economy has played a negative role over the years. During economic hard times the number dropped to 25% in 1980 and, again, in 1990. Conversely, the trust number nearly doubled—to 47% in 1984—with Ronald Regan’s ebullience and recast economic policies. In the late ‘90s the trust number rose to a 10-year high (42%) in conjunction with the “” propelled stock market boom.

Going to war has had a positive effect, too. The trust number nearly doubled in 1991 (from 25 to 47%) after America launched the First Gulf War. Trust buoyed again with America’s response to 9/11, reaching 60% in November 2001, the highest trust number since the ‘70s.

What can we make of these data? While it’s risky making too much of a single indicator, the historical data from Pew Research are worth analyzing.

A vital America can’t continue this way. We need political leadership that pulls us together, not apart, giving all Americans (not just a few) a shared sense of pride in what government can do.

Notably, Americans experienced something very important “back in the day.” Government initiatives shared a common trait: leadership for the public good. The G.I. Bill went into effect. The interstate highway system was built. The Peace Corps was created. The Space Race was launched. There was “The War on Poverty,” “The Great Society,” and The Civil Rights Act. There were “The 1000 Points of Light” and laterAmeriCorps and VISTA. We pulled together as a country following the 9-11 attacks.

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A higher level of government trust almost always coincided with government leadership for the public good.

But something very troubling has happened since. Partisanship and legislative gridlock are replacements. Ad hominem attacks abound. Meaningful progress is difficult to achieve. In some respects we seem to have “lost our way,” borrowing the title of Bob Herbert’s recent book, and that description helps explain the plight we face today.

The path to the current low level of government trust (24%) began over a decade ago—during the latter stages of the G.W. Bush presidency—and it has continued generally unabated into the Obama presidency. What happened? One national problem followed the next—the Second Iraq War, Katrina, the banking crisis, The Great Recession, data security, the government shutdown, the debate over health care, immigration, the VA debacle, and (most recently) renewed controversy over enhanced interrogation techniques—to name just a few.

Trust eroded. The number dropped 35 points from the beginning to the end of the Bush administration—from about 60% to 25%. During President Obama’s time the number hasn’t risen above 30%, and it has been as low as 10%.

A vital America can’t continue this way. We need political leadership that pulls us together, not apart, giving all Americans (not just a few) a shared sense of pride in what government can do. The Affordable Care Act—as much as it was needed—didn’t do that.

Americans need to be lifted up again—as they were (rather routinely) years ago—to focus collectively on shared goals and pursuits. Fixing America’s physical infrastructure, a focus in Herbert’s book, is an intelligent start.

That objective, so reasonable in one sense, seems politically impossible. Somehow, some way, we need get back to the day when Americans trusted their government—as most did in 1964.


Frank Fear