I was born in 1969, but already that year seems to belong to a lost world. Back in the “Age of Aquarius,” American troops were fighting in Vietnam, American students were demonstrating in the streets and American astronauts were landing on the moon. There have been plenty of wars and demonstrations since but no more moon landings after 1972. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, it’s worth asking why that extraordinary achievement was not a prelude to moon bases or manned missions to Mars, as so many in 1969 expected. Part of the answer can be found in some of the most interesting and illuminating poll numbers I have ever seen.
The Pew Research Center has compiled surveys of public trust in the federal government from 1958 to 2019. In 1958, trust was sky high: 73 percent. And why not? Washington had created the Tennessee Valley Authority, Social Security and the interstate highway system. It had vanquished a Great Depression and won a world war. It was now desegregating public schools.
Faith in government had dipped by the end of the 1960s — 62 percent in 1968, 54 percent in 1970 — but there was still much to inspire Americans, including the passage with bipartisan support of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid. By landing a man on the moon, the government seemed to show that it could do anything.
Alas, faith in government could not survive defeat in Vietnam, stagflation and, above all, Watergate. Public confidence was just 36 percent after President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and it has never reached earlier highs.
There was a rise in support during the 1980s — but only into the 40-percent range. President Ronald Reagan had taken office proclaiming “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” But while Reagan helped to undermine faith in government in the long term, his immediate success, ironically, had the opposite effect by showing that America wasn’t ungovernable.
Another irony: Confidence in government plummeted in the 1990s — as low as 19 percent in 1994 — even though this decade is now seen as the apogee of American power and prosperity. Presumably this curious fact can be explained by a combination of Newt Gingrich’s inveterate hostility toward government and President Bill Clinton’s scandals.
Faith in government rose again briefly after the 9/11 attacks; the only time since 1972 it exceeded 50 percent was in October 2001. But the disasters of the George W. Bush presidency — the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crash — took their toll. By the time Bush left office in 2009, faith had fallen to 25 percent. It has never recovered — even though the economy did. Under President Barack Obama, the nation launched the longest economic expansion in its history. Yet public confidence that the government in Washington would “do what is right,” “always” or “most of the time,” has fallen to just 17 percent today.
This is due mainly to the way Republicans have demonized government: First, the tea party attacked government spending, and now President Trump defames even agencies such as the FBI that Republicans have traditionally lionized. Republicans also undermined Obama’s legitimacy by insinuating that the first African American president wasn’t a real American. Occupy Wall Street leftists have done their bit by convincing many Democrats that the government has been captured by the rich. Both sides see Washington as the enemy — the right views it as the preserve of the anti-Trump “deep state,” the left as the preserve of Trumpian crooks and racists who lock children in cages. Today faith in government is even lower among Democrats (14 percent) than Republicans (21 percent).
This attitude is what made possible Trump’s rise: If most people think that the government is already broken, why not elect someone who will blow everything up? And because Trump is so vicious and incompetent, his presidency will only further corrode respect for our institutions.
This is a lot of the reason we no longer seem capable of big, bold undertakings, whether going to Mars or rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. Almost no one trusts government to do anything right. This suspicion is understandable but excessive: By historical or global standards, our government is actually more honest and effective than most. Even though the president is a dangerous demagogue, many honest men and women toil in the executive, judicial and legislative branches to contain the damage — with some success.
The challenge for the next Democratic president will be to revive confidence in Washington. A program of national service, as suggested by Pete Buttigieg, could help but is almost impossible to implement when so few people trust our government.
Our country cannot function effectively and we cannot successfully confront our biggest challenges — global warming, gun violence, China and Russia, autocratic populism, the debt, racial tensions, undocumented immigration — if we hold our leaders and institutions in such low regard. Democrats must oppose Trump with all their might, but they must also channel the can-do spirit that made the moon landing possible — John F. Kennedy’s faith that we could accomplish great things by working together. If we view government as nothing but a horror show, that is precisely what we will get.