Mistrust--A Historical Tradition?

As strange as it may sound, one underlying element in the public's growing unease has to do with the end of the Cold War. "The crises of the Cold War contributed clarity to the government's mission as a defender of the people," says UW History Professor Jim Gregory, whose specialty is 20th century history and politics.

"Americans could always count on one thing--the foreign policy we needed against the Soviet Union. But as the Soviet Union collapsed and our economy had its problems, it created a vacuum of understanding and policy. There was a certain weightlessness to it all. That is the context of our times."

Scandals like Watergate, Iran-Contra and the Vietnam War also have long-lasting impacts, too. In April, former House Ways and Means Chair Dan Rostenkowski pled guilty to two counts of mail fraud involving converting House funds for personal use. The federal prosecutor in the case noted "the corrosive effect" of Rostenkowski's misconduct "on our democratic system of government and on the trust our citizens have in their elected officials."

"Prior to Vietnam, most Americans wanted to believe in institutions," says Gregory. "They believed in progress, the goodness of government, schools and the like. But now the underpinnings are different. People want to be skeptical, and we don't take much on faith any more. Even if the public didn't trust government years ago, they were also much less likely to say so because they didn't want to come across as being disloyal. Times have really changed."

And how. Government probably enjoyed its highest standing after World War II. People felt good, the economy was in good shape, the GI bill was putting veterans in school, and low-interest loans helped home buying and businesses get going. But even in the "good old days," things weren't at all perfect. While the government was earning high ratings, McCarthyism, racism, sexism, widespread pollution, and other serious societal problems existed.

"We have never had the utopia where everyone trusted government," says Pat Dobel, associate dean of public affairs. "It isn't like feelings have suddenly changed. This period is certainly not unique."

For example, in 1810, a number of extremists in New England talked about seceding from the Union. Then, of course, came the ultimate act of government mistrust--the Civil War. And there have been other fractious times in our nation where civility disappeared because of frustration. For instance, people have been shot, caned and insulted on the Senate floor.

How the Information Revolution Feeds Mistrust
Getting Americans to Believe in Their Government Again
Trust in Government Project Website