Why Everything About Politics Sucks, in 1 Chart

Only 6 percent of Americans say the federal government is extremely "careful with taxpayer money," yet those same Americans consistently report that they want the government to do more.


New polling released this week by the Pew Research Center reports that large numbers of Americans both distrust their government and theoretically want to empower their government to do more, believing that the proper role of government is to protect people from themselves.

"Just 20% say they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing just about always or most of the time," reports Pew, noting that this finding has held steady over time, "chang[ing] very little since former President George W. Bush's second term in office." Only 8 percent of survey respondents describe the federal government as "responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans."

"Just 6% say the phrase 'careful with taxpayer money' describes the federal government extremely or very well; another 21% say this describes the government somewhat well," notes Pew, which conducted these polls at the end of April.

People broadly say the government responds well to natural disasters (70 percent of respondents support this statement) and keeps the country safe from terrorists (supported by 68 percent of respondents); the government gets bad marks, however, on both setting immigration policy and alleviating poverty, with three-quarters of respondents responding unfavorably to the federal government's current efforts in those categories.

You might think such fiscal profligacy and broad-based incompetence would scare people off from wanting the government to do more.

You would be mistaken: Americans' views on a variety of political issues are frequently paradoxical, which would be funny if it weren't so disturbing.

A staggering 59 percent of survey respondents from both parties say it is the government's job "to protect people from themselves," with 38 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners endorsing that belief, and 77 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaners. Meanwhile, 65 percent of all respondents report that all or most people who pursue elected office at all levels "do so to serve their own personal interests."

It is these people—the self-serving ones who have historically failed to deliver results and been wasteful with taxpayer money—that the majority of Americans think will use their power to smartly protect people from themselves. What?

There are some significant differences by party worth noting. "The share of Republicans expressing trust in the federal government is currently as low as it has been at any point in the last 60 years," notes Pew, which tracks with President Joe Biden's low approval ratings (hovering around 40 percent, with only 10 percent approval among Republicans and impressively weak among black voters, who've historically had more enthusiasm for Democrats).

Democrats give the government lower marks than Republicans do in the areas of health care and environmental protection, but in most other categories profess faith. Neither Republicans nor Democrats place much faith in the government's ability to help people get out of poverty, whereas in many other key areas, Democrats are more confident than Republicans in the federal government's ability to deliver. Fifty-three percent of Democrats and people who lean Democrat report that the government "is doing a very/somewhat good job strengthening the economy," compared to a paltry 17 percent of Republicans and people who lean Republican. (This polling was conducted prior to the most recent inflation numbers release, in which it was reported that year-over-year inflation for May ticked up to 8.6 percent.)

The gap is also wide when it comes to perceptions of the federal government's competence at "effectively handling threats to public health," which 62 percent of Democrats/leaners say has been handled well. A measly 34 percent of Republicans/people who lean that way say the same.

Consistent disappointment at the federal government's performance in key areas simply doesn't dissuade people from wanting to empower it to do more. "A majority of adults (53%) say that the government should do more to solve problems," reports Pew, with "large majorities of Black (72%), Asian (68%) and Hispanic (65%) respondents say[ing] that government should do more." Of the 18-to-29-year-old contingent, 63 percent say the government ought to do more.

Hope that the federal government won't be comprised of blustering fools with bad incentives apparently springs eternal.