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Trust in Government Is Up, but It’s Too Early to Pop the Champagne Corks

The numbers are still at historical lows. Civic engagement is the most important factor in building trust in our institutions, and our communities need to find better ways to encourage active participation in civic life.

A public library volunteer
A volunteer works at a public library in Noblesville, Ind. Volunteering at a school, library or other community institution is one measure of civic engagement, but just 1 in 10 Americans has volunteered in the past three months. (Photo: Hamilton East Public Library)
After years of record-low levels of trust in American institutions, there is positive movement, showing more Americans have trust in government than any time since 2020.

Tracking data collected by Heart+Mind Strategies and the State Policy Network starting in March of 2020 shows that trust in American government and media fell dramatically during the pandemic and then held steady, at low levels, through 2022. However, between January and May of this year, trust has jumped nine points for the federal government and eight points each for state and local government. More-modest gains have been made for newspapers and broadcast media. Even social media, which for years was blamed for politically motivated misinformation, is trusted by double the number of people compared to December of 2022 (18 percent in May).

However, these gains don’t tell the whole picture. Absolute levels of trust in our institutions remains low. The federal government is the least-trusted level, with just 1 in 4 Americans having strong levels of confidence in Washington. The institutions we rely on to tell us what the federal government is up to, print and broadcast media, are equally distrusted by the public. State and local governments fare slightly better, but still only about 1 in 3 Americans have high levels of trust in them.

Trust in government is built through transparency, accountability and efficiency. It’s fair to say that there have not been radical changes in the last five months elevating the importance of or emphasis on these key attributes in the inner workings of government. Instead, the slow uptick in trust likely comes from improving economic indicators such as an easing inflation rate, a rising GDP and the passage of time since the bumbled handling of COVID-19. Regardless of their individual starting points, institutions have only regained about half the trust lost during the COVID-19 years.

The economic recovery is predicted to be slow, and only so much trust can be regained from a major breach of public trust, as historical post-Watergate and Iraq War numbers show. Government must do more than wait to rebuild trust. Building civic engagement — working to be more accessible and visible to the public — and putting more effort into solving problems than into political grandstanding would be good starting points.

But that feels like a pipe dream at the federal level as we head into the early part of the 2024 presidential campaign, which rewards candidates who make the best play toward the extreme wings of their partisan bases. However, people see hope at other levels of government. Two-thirds of voters believe that state and local politicians are more focused on getting things done compared to national politicians, and just over half say politics feels less divisive at the local level — rare points of agreement between Republicans and Democrats.

Trust in government, interpersonal trust, political polarization and civic engagement are all woven tightly together. The more we trust people in our daily lives, the greater our trust in institutions. Meanwhile, trust of others declines with intense political polarization, and polarization is pushing more and more people away from civic engagement. But civic engagement comes with many benefits, including the establishment of a bond and trust among people living together in local communities. Civic engagement, or rather a lack thereof, could very well be at the root of our problems.
Just 1 in 10 Americans has volunteered for a school, library or other community institution in the past three months, and the data suggests that engagement is closely associated with having young children. The need to have strong community ties goes far beyond child-rearing years, yet few seem to find a meaningful way to engage. The difference between actual engagement and the number who are interested in engaging, found in the same survey to be 53 percent, shows a massive disconnect that is clearly rippling through other parts of public life, eroding trust and giving people a feeling of hopelessness about their ability to impact politics.

About once in a generation, a presidential candidate runs, and wins, on the bipartisan ideal of reigniting progress for all and giving people hope in the future. Kennedy, Reagan and Obama all successfully used that playbook to win election, yet arguably became some of the most partisan and controversial presidents of the modern era.

It’s unclear who the nation will choose between in 2024 and what the main themes of their campaigns will be. What is certain is that even with the best person sitting in the Oval Office, federal action will not save us from our problems. Changes will start, and flourish, in the thousands of communities that together make up the American nation. Institutions within communities must find new and better ways to engage and encourage their citizens to take an active part in civic life. Significant rises in our trust of institutions will naturally follow.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and senior messaging strategist at the State Policy Network.
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