Go figure, eh? At one time, the CDC maintained high respect in the US for its work, but perhaps because most people didn’t know much about their operation. After watching the agency tasked with stopping the spread of dangerous disease in operation over the last few weeks, Americans have discovered that they’re much like any other government agency — although still better than the IRS, but not by much:

Americans’ faith in the agency charged with protecting the homeland from the rapidly escalating Ebola outbreak in West Africa — which has already crept onto U.S. soil — has dropped sharply since the crisis emerged.

A CBS News Poll has found that positive assessment of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declined dramatically, with only 37 percent of respondents saying the CDC is doing an excellent or good job — down from 60 percent in a May 2013 Gallup poll. …

The CBS News Poll asked Americans to rate the job being done by various government agencies and departments, and measured the public’s confidence in a number of U.S. institutions.

Of the nine government agencies tested, just one, the FBI, received a positive rating from more than half of Americans.

Back when I worked for a defense contractor in its technical publications department, one worker had a sign in her cubicle which accurately diagnoses the phenomenon in play here: “One aws**t cancels out a thousand attaboys.” It isn’t what the CDC did for the past ten years, but what they’re doing when the spotlight is on them that counts. In fact, the CDC’s performance over the past few weeks will have people questioning just how well they’ve done their job all along, and perhaps they should.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the public perception might be a little too harsh. One amazing aspect of this poll is that the CDC is only seven points up on the VA (30%) and only six over the IRS (31%). Both of those agencies have been embroiled in scandals that involve outright corruption, not just incompetence, and yet they’re almost within the margin of error with the CDC, which to this point is only considered to be well-meaning but failing. Of course, the opposing argument is how those two agencies get anywhere near 30% approval ratings — and how did the CIA, which arguably missed the impending collapse of the Iraqi military and the rise of Russian aggression, get a 44% approval rating? That’s higher than Barack Obama got last month in the same poll series (40/50).

Frank Luntz (now with CBS) makes a good observation in the video clip, noting that Americans had never had much confidence in politicians but considered agencies like the CDC as the “guardrails” of civic life. The last several years, and arguably the last few decades, have shown an erosion in confidence in institutions, and not just those in government either. Damon Linker made a similar point at The Week yesterday, from a slightly different angle:

Which is why levels of trust have fallen for so long, and so far. Over the past 14 years, we’ve endured a series of stunning institutional failures. Going backwards in time, we have:

  • The Secret Service failure to stop a knife-wielding, fence-jumping intruder from making it into the White House before being subdued — or to keep an armed former convict from getting into an elevator with the president of the United States.
  • The badly botched ObamaCare rollout.
  • The failure of numerous regulatory bodies leading up to the financial crisis of 2008.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s utterly inept response to Hurricane Katrina.
  • The ruinous occupation of Iraq — a blunder so catastrophic that it destabilized the entire region and led to well over 100,000 deaths (and counting).
  • The monumental intelligence failure that precipitated the 2003 invasion of Iraq in the first place.
  • And, of course, the equally monumental intelligence failure leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few more dropped balls. But you get the point. Government is failing, over and over again, to accomplish the goals we set for it, regardless of which party is running the show.

And just in case that sounds like a set-up for a libertarian manifesto in favor of privatization, note that institutional failures haven’t been limited to government. From the banks and other financial institutions that nearly wrecked the global economy in 2008, to the sex-abuse scandals that have been rocking the Catholic Church for over a decade, to General Motors’ deadly ignition-switch cover-up, big organizations, whether private or public, have been behaving badly and ineptly.

Too big to fail really means too big to succeed, too. Americans are waking up to that fact, which is why the era of big government may be heading for another crash soon. The best structures are those which remain closest to the people they serve, which we call in Catholic thinking subsidiarity — and in the context of American civics, federalism. We may not see a concerted and organized effort to return to that model (the Tea Party is a start in that direction), but there is no doubt that the ground is becoming more fertile for a renaissance of federalism.