Young Americans Report Little Trust in the Federal Government

Perhaps it’s that young Americans think that the federal government is worse than the sum of its parts. Or perhaps it’s just that they think that Congress’ inaction has contaminated the rest of the American political system. Whatever the case may be, the latest poll by the Harvard Public Opinion Project shows that young Americans between 18 and 29 put less trust in the “federal government” and the legislative branch than in the Supreme Court or the president.

No more than three percent of respondents reported trusting the federal government “all of the time,” while 80 percent said that they trusted it “some of the time” or “never.” Eighty-four percent of participants felt that they could trust Congress “some of the time” or “never.”

It should be no surprise that Congress has a dim track record in the eyes of young Americans. This generation has come of age during a period of prolonged partisan rancor and inaction. The divisive Bush era is book-ended by the Clinton era’s wrangling around budgets and healthcare on the one end, and the epic bickering of the Obama- and Tea Party-era on the other.

Meanwhile, survey participants were more trusting of the leaders of both the executive and judicial branches. Nearly one-third of the pool said they trusted the president “most” or “all of the time.” Thirty-six percent felt the same level of trust in the Supreme Court.

A deep dive into these numbers should worry Democrats gearing up for the 2016 presidential election. Twenty-eight percent of independents, the largest bloc of young Americans (38 percent of the pool) according to the survey, “never” trust the president, nearly as widespread a feeling as among young Republicans.

This difference in trust may be indicative of shifting perceptions of authority. During the Obama presidency, conservatives have stoked fears of an “imperial presidency.” Scholars report on the continually expanding powers of the executive branch. Meanwhile, the narrative on Congress’ role has been comparatively bleak, as its most recent claims to fame have derived from being unprecedentedly impotent and ineffective.

The differences in trust among young independents may then be due to differences in perceived responsibility. Young Americans may be chalking up the prolonged inertia of the federal government to unprecedented congressional infighting rather than presidential weakness. Yet for young Americans who still believe in the power of the imperial presidency to overcome congressional boondoggles, it’s clear that President Obama could have done more.

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