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Americans' Faith In Government Shaken But Not Shattered By Watergate

Americans' Faith In Government Shaken But Not Shattered By Watergate


PRINCETON, NJ -- The Watergate incident came to light twenty five years ago on June 17, 1972, when burglars linked to the Republican Party were caught attempting to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters inside Washington's Watergate Hotel. In the broadest sense, public confidence in America's leaders hasn't been the same since. But a look at trends in Americans' perceptions of specific aspects of government suggests that the long term impact of Watergate on public trust has been relatively light.

Moreover, in spite of some decline in confidence, Americans' perceptions of government today remain more positive than negative.

A Gallup poll taken earlier this month updated several questions about public trust and confidence in government that were first asked prior to Watergate being widely reported. The results indicate that Watergate triggered a decided shift away from high public confidence in the government in Washington generally, but that it had much less effect on perceptions of specific aspects of government, such as the Executive branch, the Legislative branch, or even of "politicians" generally (defined as men and women serving in or running for public office).

Certain institutions of government, including the Supreme Court local governments and state governments, have actually increased in public stature since 1972.

Trust in Washington Lessened
The greatest damage to the government's reputation as a result of Watergate appears to be in the amount of trust Americans say they have in Washington "to do what is right," a question asked consistently by the University of Michigan since 1958 for its National Election Study. In 1972, before Watergate became the scandal of the decade, more than half of American adults gave the government very high marks, saying they could trust it all or most of the time, while 45% opted for the "only some of the time" alternative. By 1974, high trust had dropped to 36% and has remained below 50% ever since.

According to the recent Gallup poll, only 32% of Americans have a high level of trust in government to do what is right on this measure. Two thirds trust it "only some of the time."

The fact that most Americans now have only "some" trust in Washington, however, does not mean they have completely lost trust -- a point reinforced by the results to Gallup questions first asked in May of 1972, and most recently updated in the June 1997 Gallup survey.

Today more than half of Americans say they have either a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in all major aspects of government, ranging from a low of 54% for the Legislative branch of the federal government, (defined as including the U.S. House and Senate), to a high of 71% for the Judicial branch headed by the Supreme Court. The most severe critics, those with "not much" or no confidence in government, range from 27% for the Judicial branch to 44% for the Legislative branch.

Little Long-Term Impact
Some of the institutions measured by the recent Gallup poll have dropped in public esteem since 1972, but for the most part not substantially. Moreover, since these drops occurred at least several years after Watergate, any connection to that event would have to be viewed as indirect at best.

Trust in the Executive branch of government sank from 73% in May of 1972 to 40% in April of 1974 at the height of the Watergate scandal: a clear linkage. However, that trust rebounded to 58% under Gerald Ford in June of 1976 and is currently at 62% under Bill Clinton.

This long-term eleven point drop, however, is not a likely legacy of Watergate. It is more likely related to Bill Clinton's current job approval rating of 57% -- relatively high for Clinton, but lower than the 62% recorded for Nixon in May, 1972. Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush all periodically enjoyed job ratings well above 60%, indicating that the public has been capable of high support for the presidency after Watergate.

High trust in the Legislative branch was maintained throughout the Watergate period, recorded at 71% in 1972 and 68% in 1974. It dropped to 61% by June of 1976 and is at 54% today -- a seventeen point drop since Watergate, although apparently not the direct result of the incident. (The Congress was of course the political institution most involved in attempting to uncover Watergate abuses.)

Since 1972 the percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the Judicial branch, in local governments, and in state governments has increased roughly five percentage points. As a result, local and state governments are now more trusted than either the Executive or Legislative branches, or government in Washington, a change from the 1970s.

"Politics" may be a dirty word to some, but a majority of Americans (57%) say they have a fair amount or great deal of confidence in the men and women engaging in political life in this country -- including those who hold or are running for public office. This is down only slightly from 1972 when 65% expressed relatively high confidence.

Trust in the Fourth Estate and other elements of the mass media has also suffered moderate erosion over the last two decades, falling fifteen points from 68% in 1972 to 53% today. While the press was initially hailed as the hero of the Watergate affair, the subsequent drop in public confidence that the media report the news "fully, accurately, and fairly" might be linked to the more aggressive role the press has taken in rooting out scandal since Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein set the standard at the Washington Post twenty-five years ago.

Trust May Rise as America Ages
In May of 1972, young adults (aged 18-29) tended to have the least confidence in government, in comparison with all other age groups in that survey. While young people's confidence is even somewhat lower today than it was twenty-five years ago, today's younger generation tends to have the most confidence in their government of all age groups. Whether their relatively bright outlook continues as they age remains to be seen.

The results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 935 adults, 18 years and older, conducted May 30 - June 1, 1997. For results based on samples of this size, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be plus or minus 4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

As you know, our federal government is made up of three branches: an Executive branch, headed by the President: a Judicial branch, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court: and a Legislative branch, made up of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. First, let me ask you how much trust and confidence you have at this time in the Executive branch headed by the President -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all? Next, how about the Judicial branch, headed by the U.S. Supreme Court? Next, how about the Legislative branch, consisting of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives?

Confidence in Federal Government - Selected Trend
Executive Judicial Legislative
1997 May 30-Jun 1
Great deal 13% 19% 6%
Fair amount 49 52 48
Not very much 27 22 36
None 9 5 8
No opinion 2 2 2
___ ___ ___
100% 100% 100%
1972 May
Great deal 24% 17% 13%
Fair amount 49 49 58
Not very much 20 24 22
None 4 7 3
No opinion 2 3 4
___ ___ ___
100% 100% 100%
How much trust and confidence do you have in the government of the state where you live when it comes to handling state problems -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?
  May 1972 May 1997
Great deal 15% 18%
Fair amount 48 50
Not very much 27 25
None 6 6
No opinion 4 1
___ ___
100% 100%
And how much trust and confidence do you have in the local governments in the area where you live when it comes to handling local problems -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?
  May 1972 May 1997
Great deal 12% 21%
Fair amount 51 48
Not very much 27 21
None 7 8
No opinion 3 2
___ ___
100% 100%
In general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media -- such as newspapers, TV and radio -- when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?
  May 1972 May 1997
Great deal 18% 10%
Fair amount 50 43
Not very much 24 31
None 6 15
No opinion 2 1
___ ___
100% 100%
Finally, how much trust and confidence do you have in general in men and women in political life in this country who either hold or are running for public office -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?
  May 1972 May 1997
Great deal 7% 5%
Fair amount 58 52
Not very much 27 37
None 5 5
No opinion 3 1
___ ___
100% 100%

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