While multiple polls have shown American's trust in government at record lows, a Vanderbilt University poll shows American's trust in government to be higher when asked about specific government agencies.
Fourty-nine percent said they trust the Department of Defense to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.” Even the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency, which have come under fire from Republican presidential candidates for high levels of regulation on businesses, showed levels of trust over twice as high as trust in government as a whole. Thirty-eight percent said they trusted HHS and the EPA to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.”
But when asked, “how much of the time do you feel that you can trust government in Washington to do what is right?” only 2 percent of respondents answered “just about always,” and only 13 percent answered “most of the time.” Fifty-six percent answered “only some of the time,” and 28 percent answered “never.”
The Oct. 28 to Nov. 5 poll surveyed 1,423 Tennesseans, and the results mirror those of a September CNN/ORC national poll showing 15 percent of Americans trusting government, a record low since the question has been asked.
The situation is similar to American attitudes toward Congress. They generally dislike Congress as a whole but like the members of Congress who represent them.
American attitudes toward specific government agencies are also similar to their attitudes toward entitlement spending. Americans say they want government to cut spending, but they do not want to make significant cuts to the two largest contributors to the nation's debt woes – Social Security and Medicare.
The results indicate that members of Congress will need to be wary of losing public support as they wrangle over which federal agency's budgets to cut.
Writing about the results for the political science blog, The Monkey Cage, Vanderbilt political science Professors Larry Bartels and Marc Hetherington argue that politicians should not take distrust in government too literally.
“Looking below the surface reveals a surprising degree of public trust, even in Tennessee, in the specific agencies that make up the federal government. Any budget deal that decimates those agencies will have to be justified on some other grounds.”
Trust in government has been low since the Watergate scandal of the Richard Nixon administration in the early 1970s. Some political scientists have argued that low trust in government bodes ill for democratic institutions that need the support of those whom it governs. Other political scientists have argued that low trust in government is a measure of skepticism and some skepticism is healthy for a democracy.
Steven Shepherd, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, has conducted experiments showing that trust in government correlates with dependence on government. In a Nov. 24 interview with The Christian Post, Shepherd took the latter view, that a healthy dose of skepticism is good for a democracy.