You may be hearing that Americans have a record-low opinion of government. Don’t believe that for a second! Gallup informs us that Americans still have trust in confidence in government — at least the level of government they could most impact themselves:
Two-thirds of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in their local governments to handle local problems, and a solid majority feel the same way about their state government.
Confidence in state government matched confidence in local government as recently as 2008; however, the former fell sharply in 2009 as statehouses across the country began to grapple with major budgetary problems, and it has yet to fully recover.
Still, Americans remain more confident in state and local government than in the two policymaking branches of the federal government, according to findings from the Sept. 8-11 update of Gallup’s annual Governance poll.
Currently, less than a third of Americans have solid confidence in the legislative branch, with just 5% saying they have a great deal of confidence in it. Overall confidence in the executive branch is also muted, at 47%.
Ahem. That last paragraph is deliberately misleading, as it compares the “great deal” response for the legislature to the combined “great deal/fair amount” responses for the executive. The actual comparison is 5% to 17%, or 31% to 47%. And actually, except for the legislature, the “great deal” numbers are all similar — 19% for local government, 15% for state government, and 17% for the federal executive branch. The actual difference is in the “fair amount” category, where the federal executive and legislative branches get 30% and 26%, respectively. The legislature gets a whopping 50% in the “not very much” response, far higher than any other level.
Why? The wisdom of the American political system, at least at its inception, is that it created a tiered structure for government. Local governments had the most involvement in regulation, with limitations from the sovereign state governments. Those then created a limited amount of authority to the federal government to address issues that the states could not do alone. The key to this is the ability of free people to govern themselves and influence the behavior of the governing class. That’s strongest at the local level, somewhat less so at the state level, and much less so now at the federal level, where most of the governing class occupy bureaucracies rather than elected officials that are directly accountable to the voters.
So why is Congress so much less trusted than the President? All voters cast ballots for the President, who is therefore accountable to everyone. In contrast, a voter can only directly impact three members of Congress with a vote: his Representative in the House, and the two Senators that represent his state. That is a big reason that Congressional job approvals routinely run much lower than those of Presidents, as well as being the one branch that requires compromises to pass any kind of legislation.
This is what people miss about the Tea Party movement. Critics dismiss it as nihilistic and/or anarchistic and accuse activists of “hating” government. What conservatives and Tea Party activists want is power devolved back to states and local communities, where individual voters have much more influence, as the framers of the Constitution envisioned. Americans don’t hate government; they love self-government rather than bureaucratic rule, and find it much more efficient and less costly in the long run.