Why Did Trust in Government Plummet? The Answer Below!

Yesterday I made the case that if Joe Biden needs to “find a way to reach at least some of the disillusioned and the disaffected” in his inaugural address, talking about the economy isn’t the way to do it. Americans have been doing pretty well lately, and that includes even the working poor.

But if there really are lots of disaffected Americans—and recent events certainly suggest there are—and money isn’t the fundamental reason for their resentment, then what’s the problem? To help us get to an answer, I posted a chart showing that trust in government plummeted starting in the early 2000s, which suggested we need to look at that time period for an answer. Now let’s take another look at that chart, broken down by Democrats and Republicans:

You would expect the aughts to be a dismal decade for Democrats. George Bush was in the White House, a war was raging in Iraq, and tax cuts for the rich were the order of the day. For the same reasons, you’d expect it to be a pretty good decade for Republicans. But no. As you can see, Republican trust in government plummeted even more steeply. (This turned around a bit when Donald Trump was elected, which is pretty normal. But it didn’t turn around by much.)

So what happened in the early 2000s that provoked Republicans so badly? They had a president in the White House; control of Congress for most of the time; and a pretty decent economy. What cankered their souls?

The answer, based on a handful of evidence and some common sense, is Fox News. It started up in 1996, and after a few years of relatively moderate conservatism it moved distinctly rightward following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This was also the critical period when Fox expanded throughout the country and gained traction with a critical mass of conservative viewers.

The effect was devastating: during this period Fox increasingly promoted not just conservatism, but a particularly toxic brand of conservatism that depended on stoking outrage over a different government “scandal” on nearly a daily basis. And it did it to a growing number of conservatives.

It’s all but impossible to watch Fox News on a regular basis and retain any sort of confidence that government is a force for good. This is why conservative trust in government took such a nosedive during the aughts. Unlike Democrats, who were understandably unhappy with Bush era policies, Republicans were deliberately stoked into outrage because that turned out to be where the money was for Rupert Murdoch and his creation.

Did social media amplify this effect when it spread during the late teens? Sure. Facebook and Twitter gave the outrage a place to swirl around and fester. But make no mistake: social media is basically a sideshow that obviously played no more than a small role in the critical period of conservative disaffection during the aughts. The real culprit for the ever-worsening fury and bitterness of rank-and-file conservatives is Fox News, along with its teammates in the talk radio universe.

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It’s really that simple. But if you’d like to read a bit more, our membership lead, Brian Hiatt, has a post for you highlighting some of our newsroom's impressive, impactful work of late—including two big investigations in just one day and covering voting rights the way it needs to be done—that we hope you’ll agree is worth supporting.

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