Why do most people distrust their elected leaders?

Jul 2, 2013

When you think about the government – local, state, or federal - how much do you trust those leaders whom you've elected?

We certainly know that public approval ratings for Congress are at abysmally low levels. The latest Gallup poll finds 78% of U.S. voters disapprove of the job Congress is doing; only 17% approve.

Let's look more closely at what we all think about our leaders. And for that, we've raised that special 50-50 flag, that's half Wolverine maize and blue and half Spartan green and white. Charley Ballard, who directs the State of the State Survey for Michigan State University, and Tom Ivacko, who does the Michigan Public Policy surveys for the University of Michigan's Center for Local, State and Urban Policy, both joined us in the studio today.

“Distrust of power, I think, is part of our political DNA,” said Ivacko. “I think that’s built in to some degree, but we’ve seen over time a steep decline, and the decline continues today.”

According to the Michigan Public Policy Survey, only about 6% of local leaders trust the federal government to do the right thing.

The State of the State Survey asks the same questions, but focuses on a random sample of Michigan adults. 19% said they trusted the state government, 15% trusted the federal, and 39% trust the local government.

Ballard explained that over time the opinion of the local government has stayed about the same, but both state and federal have seen a longstanding downward trend.

“A lot of it seems to be based on the state of the economy, and when the economy is not doing well, people tend to trust their policy makers much less,” Ivacko said. “So I think that’s at least part of what’s going on over the last decade in Michigan.”

“There are lots of reasons why you could say ‘I don’t trust somebody.’ One would be that you think they’re corrupt, or not transparent, or something like that. But the other could be that just that you’re not happy with the situation,” said Ballard. “I think another one is that both for the state and federal government, we’ve seen a lot of dysfunction in recent years.”

Both Ivacko and Ballard agreed that the current term limits in Michigan are a large part of the problem, as they do not allow for long-term relationships.

Despite the negative view people have developed of the government, Ballard did acknowledge that many do have a positive view of particular aspects, such as Social Security and Medicare. But the distrust will continue to be a big issue for the public.

-Michelle Nelson, Michigan Radio News

Listen to the full interview above.