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“Just about always” and “Never” responses to trusting the federal government

Monday, March 10, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

trust in govtHere’s an intriguing note from Pacific Standard on whether the US government can ever be trusted. They refer to the American National Election Study (ANES) adding a “never” response to its annual survey of trust in the federal government. The traditional question has been:

“How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right—just about always, most of the time or only some of the time?”

This year, they added a “never” option and a lot of people took it. The graphic illustrating this post shows the results ANES got from their updated question about how much the government can be trusted, and how it varied by political orientation. Then they also showed this graph which reflects how trust has varied over time depending on whether the President is a Republican or a Democrat. 

trusting government II

They conclude three things from this data:

“Trust took a dive in the 1960s and ’70s and never really recovered.

Republican trust is much more volatile, with greater fluctuations depending on which party is in the White House.

Republicans really, really hate President Obama.”

We don’t disagree with their conclusions but tend to look at the figures a little differently. We ask a similar question in our pretrial research and we have absolutely never gotten this sort of pattern. We are very surprised that slightly over 50% of the Republicans in the sample said you can “never” trust the federal government. It just doesn’t mesh with what we have seen year after year after year. We have seen, and Gallup recently published a poll validating it, that increasing numbers of mock jurors are describing themselves as politically independent. Historically, most of our mock jurors said they were either Republican or Democrat, a few would say Independent and maybe one was unaffiliated. Now, what we see is about half saying they are politically unaffiliated, with a third or more saying they are Independent or Libertarian. A minority identify now as either Republican or Democrat.

What we get most often in response to a query on how much one can trust the federal government is a normal bell curve pattern of results with significantly more people choosing the middle options (some of the time or most of the time) and a few saying “always” or “never”. We are interested in those who say “always” or “never”–and usually, a little more interested in those who say “never”.

Often, the “never” responders are fringe dwellers and idiosyncratically reactive for their own (sometimes unidentifiable) reasons. They may be attention-seeking during group discussions, will say outrageous things to provoke, and refuse to engage, consider other perspectives, or to change their mind during free deliberations. These are people who are certain of their rightness and who react unpredictably. Needless to say, if they also respond in a reactive fashion on a few other innocuous questions we routinely ask, they are not someone we want to hear our case–mainly because, they will refuse to listen, and even if they do listen, their reaction will likely be idiosyncratic and unpredictable. (See, for example, our post on “Victoria”.)

It’s an intriguing part of what we do. We track pop culture. We watch surveys and polls and other measures of public opinion. And often we have different interpretations than the pollsters or surveyors do–based on what our own work tells us. It’s especially intriguing when we see patterns begin to shift–only to find it validated later by the pollsters (as in the example with people gravitating toward a politically independent self-description). It provides a profile of how our culture and society is evolving that can only be discerned through ongoing research.


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