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Americans Are Skeptical Of The Government — Except When There’s A Crisis

The approval ratings of many world leaders and government officials — including President Trump — have increased amid the COVID-19 crisis. Even U.S. government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have experienced a boost in popularity, despite public criticism of the government’s delayed response to the pandemic.

Greater public trust in government officials and agencies is the typical response to crises, including pandemics. Political scientists Bethany Albertson and Shana Kushner Gadarian find that when Americans feel anxious about threats like infectious disease, they are more likely to trust government officials and support policies they think may protect them.

You can see this playing out in real time. Despite an initial, flat-footed response involving delays in providing widespread testing and medical equipment, trust in the U.S. government started out high as people sought information on how best to counter the threat. Americans are also paying a lot more attention to the government: They are glued to their television screens, heeding medical advice and supporting policies that restrict their movement.

But that does not mean views of the government will improve over the long term. Rather, when the urgency of the crisis fades, the public is likely to once again sour on the government. Americans may hold the government in even lower esteem if the current situation exacerbates perceptions that the government is unable to effectively solve problems.

Americans traditionally voice a lot of skepticism about the government, but political scientists Chanita Intawan and Stephen P. Nicholson find that the public also has an implicit trust in authority figures, which can be activated in times of crisis. Take the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Despite intelligence failures in anticipating the assaults, then-President George W. Bush’s approval ratings nonetheless reached historic high points. The public’s need to feel safe in a time of crisis triggers a desire to believe officials can offer protection.

That may seem like an opening for permanently advancing the government’s role in the economy and society by nationalizing health care or broadening social welfare programs. But Americans’ anti-government attitudes are deeply ingrained — and some may even be accentuated by the crisis.

Trust in government is very polarized, with Americans less likely to trust presidents from a different political party. Republicans, in particular, are unwilling to trust Democrats in power. Democrats may have given the benefit of the doubt to Bush — or now to Trump — but that does not mean Republicans will return the favor. If a Democrat retakes the White House next year, conservatives are likely to change course and distrust the government again.

It’s not just a partisan issue, though. As political scientist Amy E. Lerman demonstrates, even people who want a larger government and more public services still tend to consider the government inefficient, slow and mediocre. This group may profess to want a larger government compared with most conservatives, but that does not mean they will be any more likely to think government programs work well.

Lerman says that these views are also self-reinforcing: “We’re really in a reputation crisis, which goes beyond what we think of as the usual low trust in government, and is really [a] downward spiral.” Because so many Americans already hold the government in low esteem, they notice when it is unable to solve problems while also failing to notice when it does work, which reinforces their initial negative opinion.

Another problem is that even when the public likes government services, they often consider them private services and neglect to give the government credit. Take garbage pickup, for example. Lerman finds that regardless of who is actually picking up the trash, when Americans like their garbage service, they believe it is provided by a private company, yet if they don’t like their service, they believe it is provided by the government.

So one can imagine that as COVID-19 testing ramps up in the U.S., the public may credit companies that produce or deliver the tests rather than credit the government. Trump has been promoting this perception too, touting a quick testing device by Abbott Laboratories and drive-through testing sites at large pharmacy chains like Walgreens.

But won’t it be hard to hide the positive role the government plays in reviving the economy? Not necessarily.

Economic stimulus efforts still take the typical American policy form: using tax credits and business support, which keeps the government behind the scenes. As political scientist Suzanne Mettler has written, many Americans do not credit government policy for the benefits they receive. And those who have been helped the most by government services are often the least positive about the government, especially if they do not even recognize the public programs they rely on.

In this current crisis, people may credit their employers for staying afloat (despite government grants and loans) if they keep their jobs. Or they may see a cash payment as an earned refund on their taxes rather than a public handout. But that doesn’t mean the government won’t still get the blame if the checks come late or if some people think others are benefiting more than they are.

Bottom line: Americans’ views of the government are difficult to change. They will trust agencies and officials while they have to take quick action to avoid impending risk, but the crisis may also reinforce their view that the public sector is weak and unprepared. And while many Americans will welcome the benefits, they may consider any economic gain another success of the private sector — and any downturn a failure of government.

How close are we to a COVID-19 vaccine? l FiveThirtyEight

Matt Grossmann is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and professor of political science at Michigan State University. His books include “Red State Blues,” “Asymmetric Politics,” “Artists of the Possible” and “The Not-So-Special Interests.”