Faith in Institutions

By Published on .

The anti-government grumble, which resounded in America before Sept. 11, rings somewhat hollow in these patriotic days. Once distrustful and disparaging of their federal institutions — turned off by big government, complex electoral procedure, bloated bureaucracy and perceived corruption — these days, Americans are pledging allegiance not only to the flag, but to every governmental agency with a flagpole. In fact, Americans' trust in government has soared to its highest levels in 30 years, according to numerous polls.

In the 1950s, when pollsters began asking Americans about their attitudes toward government, trust and pride ranked among the highest worldwide. Watergate and the Vietnam War are largely credited with the waning of such sentiment in the early 1970s, a trend that continued and was intensified by Ronald Reagan's anti-government rhetoric in the 1980s, and the Contract with America crowd in the mid-1990s. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll taken in 1998, 26 percent of Americans — barely 1 in 4 — trusted the government to do what's right “most of the time.�

But times have changed. When New York Times/CBS News polled Americans in late September 2001, 55 percent said they trusted the government to do what's right “most of the time.� A poll of 800 nonfederal workers, conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Hart-Teeter between Oct. 12 and 14, 2001, found attitudes toward government much improved following Sept. 11. A solid majority — 68 percent — s aid they thought of the federal government as “our government,� as opposed to “the government� (30 percent). This was a reversal of responses from Hart-Teeter's May 1999 poll, when more (55 percent) thought of it as “the government� than “our government� (42 percent).

Fear and Mistrust

American wariness of government was well established prior to Sept. 11, but it wasn't at an all-time low. The lowest levels recorded by the University of Michigan's biannual National Election Study were back in 1994, when Republicans took over Congress, promising to get rid of “big government.� A majority of Americans — 3 in 4 — agreed at the time that Washington was only likely to do what's right none or some of the time. By 2000, that had fallen to 56 percent, and the percentage saying Washington does what's right most of the time or always doubled to 44 percent. Nonetheless, compared with the record high of 76 percent who believed government does what's right back in 1964, the figure has decreased considerably over the past 40 years. Trust in politicians, however, is dismally low. A July 2000 Harris Interactive poll found cynicism running high. Nearly half (49 percent) said that “quite a few� of those running government were “a little crooked.�


At this time last year, only 1 in 5 Americans trusted the people running the White House.

As far as the people in charge of running [each of the following] are concerned, would you say you have a great deal/quite a lot of trust in them?

1/01 1/00 1/99
The military 44% 48% 54%
The U.S. Supreme Court 35% 34% 42%
The White House 21% 21% 22%
Executive branch of federal government 20% 18% 17%
Congress 18% 15% 12%
Source: Harris Interactive

For Love of Government

Today, love of country seems to have expanded into love of government. According to the Gallup Organization, the post-Sept. 11 surge in faith in government is the highest seen since 1968, before civil unrest, social revolutions and various other events brought the level of trust to new lows. In 2000, 42 percent of Americans said they trusted the government to do what's right always or most of the time, according to Gallup. A poll conducted Oct. 5 to 6, 2001 shows 60 percent of Americans saying the same.

Gallup also shows the number of Americans saying the government should do more to solve our country's problems is at an all-time high (50 percent). In a survey taken between Sept. 7 and 10, only 36 percent of Americans agreed that the government should step up to the plate, while 55 percent said the government was already doing too much. The percentage of Americans agreeing that public officials don't “care much about what people like me think� fell from 59 percent in 1992, to 41 percent this past October.


Almost 2 in 3 Americans now trust the government to do what's right at least most of the time.

Some people think the government is trying to do many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your view?

PRE-ATTACK: 9/7-10/2001 POST-ATTACK: 10/5-6/2001
Government doing too much 55% 41%
Government should do more 36% 50%

I don't think public officials care much what people like me think.

Oct. 5-6, 2001 41% 57%
Sept. 11-15, 1992 59% 38%

Source: Gallup Organization

Bravo, Bureaucrats!

It seems highly unlikely that the IRS has done anything radically different this past year that might account for its tremendous 19-point boost in positive public opinion ratings. Yet according to a nationwide Harris Interactive poll of Sept. 19 to 24, the tax agency's public image has improved considerably since the poll was last taken in September 2000. The most likely explanation is runoff from the general rally around the flag phenomenon that has characterized Americans' attitude toward government since Sept. 11. Highest on the list of approved agencies are those dealing with health (nearly 8 in 10 Americans viewed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention positively in late September 2001), since they are responsible for investigating recent and future threats of anthrax, and biological warfare in general. Rating lowest are the CIA (57 percent view the agency positively) and the Federal Aviation Authority (54 percent) — both perhaps considered partly responsible for not better preparing the country for or preventing the events of Sept. 11.


Americans' increased trust in government extends throughout the bureaucracy.

Percent viewing the following agencies positively:

The Centers for Disease Control 79% 78% +1
The National Institutes for Health 77% 63% +14
The Securities & Exchange Commission 71% 53% +18
The Federal Bureau of Investigation 68% n/a n/a
The Environmental Protection Agency 64% 56% +8
The Internal Revenue Service 63% 44% +19
The Social Security Administration 60% 48% +12
Central Intelligence Agency 57% n/a n/a
The Federal Aviation Administration 54% 58% -4
Source: Gallup Organization


  • While approval of the president and Congress are traditionally volatile, attitudes toward government agencies generally tend to be more stable, and much more reflective of Americans' underlying attitudes toward politicians. The fact that these indexes changed so dramatically following Sept. 11 is significant.
  • At the same time, chances are this increase in faith in government is probably more a result of post-Sept. 11 and the wartime rally effect than of a lasting shift in sentiment or philosophical outlook. As such, it may be a superficial or short-lived change. Americans' fundamental mistrust of government, and the 30-year decline of trust in federal government, cannot be erased by the Sept. 11 tragedy, no matter how deeply it affected our society.


  • A strong message emphasizing the power of the private sector, particularly important in the 1990s — characterized by the anti-government mood and the dot-com euphoria — is particularly inappropriate now. Phrases like “the power of free enterpriseâ€? and “the primacy of the private sectorâ€? no longer pack the same punch.
  • New key words like “cooperation,â€? “consensusâ€? and “togetherâ€? — concepts that unite and connect, rather than differentiate and divide — could be powerful components in marketing messages.
  • Companies might want to show they're working with the government in the public interest. For example, Hollywood is working with Washington on wartime films, advertising agencies are consulting on public image campaigns (with Charlotte Beers, former Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson chair, on the Washington forefront) and businesses in New York City are cooperating with local government to revitalize the metropolitan area's economy. Promoting these types of cooperative campaigns might prove a strong PR move.
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