Voters distrust government in general, but like many specifics, poll finds

Americans have low levels of trust in the federal government and most find it poorly run and wasteful in general, even as they give high marks to many of its specific programs, according to a new poll.

Nearly six in 10 respondents said they feel “frustrated” by the government and another one in five described themselves as “angry” toward it according to the large-scale survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

About three in four said government is “pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves” rather than “run for the benefit of all the people,” and a similar share said the influence of money on the country’s politics has increased in recent years.

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Only about one in five respondents said they feel they can trust the government in Washington to do the right thing most of the time. Large majorities had a low opinion of the honesty of the country’s elected officials. And in recent years, many have also soured on the judgment of their fellow citizens.


As recently as the mid-1990s, large majorities in both parties and among self-described independents said they had “trust and confidence in the political wisdom of the American people.”

That view started to decline in the early 2000s, but took a sharp drop starting late in the George W. Bush administration, as partisan tensions mounted. That decline has continued through the Obama administration years, and today only slightly more than one-third of Democrats and Republicans and fewer than one-quarter of independents say they have confidence in the public’s wisdom.

And yet, despite those multiple measures of unhappiness about government and politics in general, large majorities have positive views about much that the government does in specific.

About three out of four respondents said they feel that the government does a good job on issues that bipartisan majorities consider important, including ensuring safe food and medicine, responding to natural disasters and setting safety rules for workplaces.

The survey also found that nearly three in four respondents said the government was doing a good job “keeping the country safe from terrorism.” The survey, which interviewed about 6,000 adult Americans, was taken over several weeks of the fall, before the terror attacks this month in Paris.

Of 13 major government functions the survey asked about, majorities gave positive performance ratings to 10 of them, the survey found.

The biggest exception was managing the immigration system. Majorities of Democrats and Republicans agreed that the government handles immigration poorly, with only 28% saying the government was doing a good job.

Large majorities gave positive marks to a long list of government agencies, starting with the Postal Service, which, despite being a butt of many jokes in popular culture, gets a positive rating from 84% of Americans.

The Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI and the Social Security Administration all received favorable marks from large majorities of respondents. The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Security Agency generated less agreement, but for both, 52% of respondents rated the agencies positively, with about one in three giving thumbs-down.

The biggest exceptions were, not surprisingly, the Internal Revenue Service and the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs, both of which more than half of respondents viewed negatively. In the case of the VA, that marked a sharp drop from the high marks it received in previous years.

Respondents were evenly divided in their view of the Department of Justice, and by a small majority had a negative view of the Department of Education. In both cases, Republicans and independents who lean to the GOP were far more negative than Democrats and those who lean in their direction.

A similar sharp partisan divide exists on some questions of what the government should do and whether it is doing its job well.

More than eight in 10 Democrats said the government should play a major role in ensuring access to healthcare, for example. By contrast, just one-third of Republicans said they feel that way. A similar divide exists on whether the government should play a major role in helping people get out of poverty.

A somewhat smaller, but still noticeable, partisan split exists on whether the federal government should play a major role in protecting the environment, strengthening the economy, ensuring access to quality education, guaranteeing a basic income to those over 65 and setting workplace standards.

On each of those issues, about eight in 10 Democrats said they saw a major role for the federal government and between half and two-thirds of Republicans agreed.

Partisan gaps loomed largest among people who are most engaged in politics -- those who vote regularly and pay attention to public affairs. About half of Republicans and GOP leaners and one-third of Democrats and Democratic leaners met that test for political engagement.

On nearly all measures, politically engaged Republicans were significantly more conservative than Republicans in general. Politically engaged Democrats were somewhat more liberal than other Democrats, although the gap was smaller than on the GOP side.

Nine in 10 politically engaged Democrats, for example, said the government should have a major role in ensuring access to healthcare. Among less engaged Democrats, about eight in 10 agreed. Among politically engaged Republicans, just one in five said they see a major role for government in ensuring healthcare access, but nearly half of the less engaged Republicans said they do.

About four in 10 politically engaged Republicans described themselves as “angry” toward the federal government. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump does well among that group, with 64% of them saying they see him favorably, the poll found. Among those who do not describe themselves as angry with the government, 48% said they had a favorable view of Trump.

For more on policy and politics, follow @DavidLauter