The overarching purpose of modern government is to advance the interests of the people. The perceived legitimacy of modern government, then, does not rest solely on popular sovereignty. Legitimacy also depends on the government’s success in solving the people’s social and economic problems. If large numbers of people become convinced that the government is failing that test, we would expect it to lose legitimacy in their eyes. Thus, we’d expect them to be open to radical changes in leadership, new forms of politics, or constitutional alterations to set things right.
It’s sensible, then, for analysts of the legitimacy crisis sweeping the West to have linked the breakdown of trust in government to specific policy failures, such as the flood of Muslim refugees into Europe and the financial crisis of 2007-8. But while these problems have undoubtedly contributed to distrust in government, the legitimacy crisis seems to be of much longer standing. In the United States, for example, trust in government has been declining since 1964. As I’ve been suggesting here for two months (this will be my last post until November), the seemingly revolutionary political upheavals now in motion may actually be traceable to the bedrock assumptions of the modern political order.
The Crisis Is Chronic But Latent
Survey researchers have, since 1958, asked American respondents if they trust “the government in Washington to do what is right” “just about always” or “most of the time.” The combined answers are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Americans’ Declining Levels of Trust in the Federal Government
Source: Pew Research Center
The Figure shows that even as there has been a secular drift downward in the level of trust in the federal government, the level has fluctuated in a logical manner—starting its decline during the Vietnam War; falling again as the economy tanked under President Carter, and after the financial crisis; rising as the economy improved under Reagan and Clinton, after success in the Gulf War, and after the September 11 attacks. Those sharp upticks in trust, after apparently successful government actions (or, in the case of September 11, successful rallying cries), suggest that the downward secular trend may stem from cumulative perceptions of the failure of government to perform, rather than from specific problems or from a general decline of trust in all major institutions, including government. 
Figure 2 suggests the same thing. Partisans seem to regain trust in government when their party holds the White House. This would be odd if the cause of distrust were a generalized unhappiness with all institutions, rather than specific dissatisfaction with the federal government. In a polity dedicated to solving the people’s social and economic problems, people’s partisan loyalties are likely to stem from their impression that a particular party is better at accomplishing that objective. It would therefore be logical for partisans to become more trusting of government when their party controls the White House. At the same time, though, trust in government might continue an overall decline if both parties seem increasingly unable to get the job done. In that case, even when one’s own party is in control, it would produce less of a bump in one’s trust in government than it used to.
Figure 2. Partisans’ Trust in the Federal Government
Source: Pew Research Center
Thus, levels of Republican trust in government under Nixon, Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43 were very high, but they never approached the Republican trust-in-government levels seen under Eisenhower or even Johnson (a Democrat). Meanwhile, Democrats experienced an even greater erosion in trust than Republicans did. There was no appreciable increase in Democratic trust under Carter as compared to Democratic trust under Nixon and Ford. And the bump in Democratic trust under President Clinton fell considerably short of the upticks among Republicans when their men were in the White House. Most strikingly of all, Democrats’ trust in government under President Obama peaked at around 40 percent—the same ceiling of trust that Democrats reached under their arch-enemies, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Declining Trust in Government among Republicans
Let’s try to figure out what’s been happening over the last 60 years, starting with the GOP.
The blue line in Figure 2 shows that Republicans’ trust in government reached a new low under Obama. Yet the increment of additional distrust during his incumbency was smaller than it had been when previous Democratic administrations had successively taken power. Under President Carter, Republican trust in government ranged from 22 to 28 percent—a huge decline from the low of 54 percent trust in government under LBJ. Under President Clinton, Republican trust in government fell again, ranging from 11 to 20 percent before the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. Under President Obama, Republican trust in government dropped a third time, ranging from 7 to 24 percent, and was usually in the mid to high teens. Each time a Democratic president was elected, then, the floor of Republican distrust in government fell progressively farther—by 32 points under Carter compared to Johnson, by 11 points under Clinton compared to Carter, and by 5 points under Obama compared to Clinton. (We shouldn’t read too much into the relatively small drop in the floor under Obama. When the floor is 7 percent, there isn’t much farther to go.) The peaks of Republican trust in government also fell: by an incredible 46 points from Johnson to Carter, 8 points from Carter to Clinton, and 4 points from Clinton to Obama.
An incomplete explanation might be the rise of conservative mass-media sources. Recent research has repeatedly demonstrated the efficacy of such sources in affecting people’s opinions. As conservative talk radio and Fox News gained larger audiences in the 1990s and 2000s, their criticism of government in general, and of Democrats in particular, might have driven down Republican trust in government when Democrats held the White House.
To the extent that this was the case, we might view the era prior to the rise of conservative mass media as a time of artificially maintained trust. Given the complexity of modern society, the normal state of affairs in a problem-solving polity should be disagreement over whether given social and economic problems can be solved and, if so, how they can be solved without doing more harm than good. Such disagreement was squelched from the 1950s through the 1980s by liberal hegemony over the mass media. Under normal circumstances, though, partisan disagreements about public policy are unavoidable. And these disagreements are likely to become bitterly antagonistic given the paradoxically simplistic understanding of politics that lends itself to taking firm positions in complex public-policy debates. The paradox is that if policy issues are perceived as being complex, it will become difficult for people who share this perception to reach policy conclusions that are firm enough to justify voting or other forms of political participation. But if policy issues are perceived as being simple enough to generate firm conclusions, disagreement itself becomes inexplicable—unless one impugns the motives of those with whom one disagrees.
However, three aspects of these data suggest that the development of an alternative Republican media universe can’t tell the whole story captured in Figure 2. First, conservative talk radio only began reaching a mass audience after 1988, when Rush Limbaugh gained national distribution; and especially after 1996, when Fox News Channel was created. So these influences wouldn’t explain the decline in Republicans’ trust in government from the 1960s through the 1980s. Second, Democrats (the red line in Figure 2) have become even more distrustful of government than have Republicans. Third, so have independents (the gray line).
To explain Democrats’ declining trust, and to some extent that of independents, we need a theory that’s compatible with Democrats’ and independents’ more mainstream media diet. Such an explanation would also explain Republicans’ loss of trust before their alternative media universe existed.
The Mainstream Media and the Persistence of Social and Economic Problems
The mainstream, officially nonpartisan media are inevitably the source of a great many voters’ perceptions of government performance. If, year after year, the mainstream media report the proliferation and persistence of social and economic problems, it stands to reason that consumers of this reporting will conclude that government is performing poorly. As new problems are discovered over time, and as old problems seem to remain unsolved, people should, other things equal, gradually lose faith in government.
Consider the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs. A consumer of the mainstream media could not be blamed for thinking that these half-century-long wars have been ignominious defeats. Similarly, the media have frequently reported on the growth of the national debt burden since 1981, but officials never seem to be able to reduce it. This was one of the main issues that independent candidate Ross Perot successfully seized upon in 1992, in what might well have become the first successful independent run for the presidency—had Perot not self-destructed. As late as June 1992, Perot (at 37 percent) led both President Bush (24 percent) and his Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton (24 percent).
As John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse wrote about focus groups they conducted in 1992, there was “overwhelming sentiment . . . that the government should ‘do something’ about key problems.”  (Notably, that’s always the overwhelming public sentiment in modern polities.) Much like Trump, Perot presented himself a man of bold action who’d simply—and “simply” is the key word—do what was necessary. Where Trump would later promise to go to Washington and drain the swamp, Perot promised to go to Washington, lift the hood, and fix what was broken.
The End of Innocence
However, the fact that high levels of trust persisted until 1964 might seem to undermine the “it’s-the-media” explanation for the decline in trust. Why should 1964 have been the turning point in mediated impressions of government failure?
One possibility is captured by the fact that a 21-year-old voter in 1964 (before the Constitution was amended to reduce the voting age to 18) would have been born in 1943, and thus would not directly remember the American triumph in World War II. Older citizens would have remembered this success, as well as the perceived success of the New Deal in remedying the Great Depression (notwithstanding the persistence of very high unemployment until World War II). But no similar successes were forthcoming once the 1964 Civil Rights Act abolished Jim Crow. That triumph may have marked the last time anyone could think of a major problem that the federal government had clearly solved, except the pseudo-problem of landing a man on the moon. Yet at the same time that the Civil Rights Act was being celebrated, the War in Vietnam was ratcheting up and the War on Poverty was about to be launched (soon to be followed by the War on Drugs). The era of universally perceived government success was about to come to an end.
Populism and the Legitimacy Crisis
In principle, people might have responded to accumulating perceptions of government failure by dialing back their expectations of government performance. But in practice, this would have violated the tacit assumption that justifies government’s attempt to solve social and economic problems to begin with: the assumption that modern society is so simple that the solutions to its problems are self-evident.
If this assumption holds, then the failure to solve social and economic problems can’t be blamed on policymakers’ ignorance of how to solve them: self-evident knowledge is, by definition, available to everyone. Instead, failure must be blamed on policymakers’ unwillingness to do what they self-evidently should do. Thus, citizens who assume that the solutions are self-evident are likely to use motivational explanations for government failure rather than epistemological explanations. Motivational explanations invite us to continue having faith that the government will “solve all our problems”—so long as leaders with the right motivations are put in charge.
Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s study, Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes toward Political Institutions (1995), catalogs a variety of the motivational explanations given by ordinary citizens to account for government failure. A favorite explanation is that politicians fail to “get things done” because they are too partisan; thus, they end up bickering, not passing laws.  The solution is obvious: elect a president who is not a partisan—an independent such as Perot, or an outsider such as Trump who castigates his own party’s elites.
The gridlock explanation of government failure doubly assumes that it’s a simple matter to solve social and economic problems:
- It attributes gridlock to political elites whose partisan motives trump the pursuit of the common good—not to political elites who are confronting a reality that’s complex enough to inspire different interpretations about how to achieve the common good.
- It assumes that if political elites could get things done—in the sense of passing laws—this would solve the problems the laws are intended to address, rather than (perhaps) aggravating these problems or causing other, worse problems. (In other words, it assumes away unintended consequences, which could not occur if modern society were so simple that solutions to social and economic problems were self-evident.)
Another common motivational explanation for government failure is that politicians are lazy: they are “simply sitting around in Washington not doing any work,” as one of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s focus-group participants put it. “If government officials would work, then maybe the problems facing the United States would disappear.”  All it would take to solve our problems, another participant said, is for the two parties’ leaders to get together and say, “There’s a problem. We won’t leave this room until it’s fixed.” Another participant elaborated: “They need to be put in small spaces in the summertime that is [sic] not air conditioned, and say, ‘Get on the ball and do something!’ and they’d do it.” 
Again, there is an obvious solution: Elect politicians who are crazy-energetic. Perhaps this sheds light on Trump’s disparagement of Hillary Clinton for lacking “stamina,” of Mitt Romney for having “disappeared” from the battle for the presidency at the end of the 2012 campaign, and of Jeb Bush for his “low energy.” Such rhetoric assumes that what’s lacking in politics isn’t insufficient knowledge of how to solve our problems, but an insufficient willingness to do what it takes to solve them.
The Intentions Heuristics
There is also a darker motivational explanation for government failure: not that politicians are partisan or lazy, but that they have no intention of solving social and economic problems because, behind our backs, they’re doing the bidding of special interests.
The preoccupation with special interests goes back, at the very least, to the Populist and Progressive Eras, and there’s little question that it’s still widespread. Eighty-six percent of the respondents to a 1992 survey conducted by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse agreed that “Congress is too heavily influenced by interest groups when making decisions.”  Eighteen years later, a New York Times survey showed that 78 percent “believed the government to be run by a few big interests, not for the benefit of the people.” Hibbing and Theiss-Morse report that, “to our respondents, interest groups are invariably evil, and Congress’s members are evil for being in any way associated with them.”  As one of the respondents put it, congressional representatives “may have good intentions, but when they get in there it’s like a corrupt system.”  But Congress isn’t the only target of popular suspicions about the influence of special interests. This was suggested by the campaigns of both Trump and Bernie Sanders, who used their independence from large contributors to argue that, as president, they would not be in hock to special interests.
Voters who blame the persistence of social problems on special interests are, once again, expressing a simplistic understanding of modern society—one that, in effect, equates intentions with results. The premise is that well-intended legislation would “solve our problems” but for the interference of interest groups that have selfish intentions. Thus, as I’ve argued elsewhere, intentions have become, in modern politics, all-purpose heuristics for the consequences of public policy. Bad intentions stand in for bad consequences, good intentions for good consequences.
However, it’s unlikely that people are deliberately substituting intentions for consequences. To do so, they would first need to recognize that they don’t know what the consequences of public policy are, and that they must therefore turn to intentions as proxies for consequences.  But I know of no survey evidence supporting the idea that citizens are aware of their ignorance of policy consequences. Such awareness is logically possible, but it would tend to make citizens into non-voters, as they would be unable to decide whom they should vote for. So it seems more reasonable to view citizens as “radically” ignorant of the fact that they’re using intentions as heuristics, just as they’re radically ignorant of their unawareness of policy consequences. Their ignorance of policy consequences is, to them, an unknown unknown.
Thus, when Philip M. Fernbach, Todd Rogers, Craig R. Fox, and Steven A. Sloman simply asked people to explain the mechanisms by which public policies that they favor would purportedly achieve their intended results, the subjects’ support for these policies dropped significantly. This suggests that before being asked about how the policies would actually work, the respondents tended not to have thought about it. This finding suggests that the good-intentions and bad-intentions “heuristics” are not deliberately used by people out of a recognition that they lack adequate knowledge of policy effects: If they recognized this, their confidence in the policies they favor would have already dropped prior to the experiment. Instead, people tacitly use intentions as proxies for results, internalizing what everyone around them has been doing since the Populists and Progressives campaigned for a government that responds to the people’s needs—not the needs of special interests.
The easiest way to draw this contrast is to juxtapose the (putatively obvious) objective interests of the many against those of the few, i.e., “elites.” From Trump to Sanders, from Europe’s far right to South America’s far left, that’s precisely what populists do—whether railing against “globalists,” “corporations,” “the 1 percent,” or “neoliberals.” This is why I’ve attempted in this space to point out the continuities between populists and everyone else.
Like everyone else in modern polities, populists want to “get things done for the American [or British, Canadian, Dutch, French, German, Mexican, Venezuelan] people.” This means solving the people’s social and economic problems. When populists object to governance by “elites,” they are saying that there is a ruling class that governs in its own interests, not the interests of the country as a whole. This is their explanation for what they perceive as the failure of the government to solve the people’s problems.
But it isn’t just their explanation. Mainstream politicians and the mainstream media are responsible for propagating the basic tenets of the populist explanation for what ails us. The alternative explanation would entail radically questioning the capacity of anyone, mass or elite, to carry out the duties that we’ve all come to assume that the political system can perform.
Jeffrey Friedman, a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, is the editor of Critical Review and the author of Technocracy: A Critique (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018).
- Congruent with this interpretation, trust in the military, after falling during the Vietnam War, recovered during the Gulf War and has, since then, been far higher than trust in other institutions and in government. Trust in each of the institutions and groups measured by Gallup’s “trust” surveys seems to fluctuate in a manner that’s peculiar to each institution and group, with trust in banks, for example, plummeting after the financial crisis.
- John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes toward American Political Institutions (Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 55.
- Ibid., pp. 67-69.
- Ibid., p. 94.
- Ibid., p. 97.
- Ibid., p. 64.
- Ibid., p. 147.
- Ibid., p. 100.
- The same is true of other political “heuristics,” too, such as nationalism.