High level of trust in government may be hard to sustain

The soaring level of trust in government reflected in polls conducted since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may be difficult to sustain, according to panelists at a seminar on public opinion held in Washington on Tuesday. Surveys conducted after the attacks by the Gallup Poll, which sponsored the seminar, and the University of Michigan showed that 60 percent of Americans said they trusted government to do what is right "just about always" or "most of the time," compared to just 39 percent who indicated a low level of trust in the federal government. Those numbers were nearly reversed from polls taken prior to the attacks, and showed the highest level of support for the federal government since before the Watergate scandal. Other polls have showed similar results. But Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University, argued that the post-Sept. 11 polls should not be read as a broad endorsement of government. "I don't think there's been any sea change about attitudes toward the role of government in social issues or the economy," Wayne said. The fact that Americans now see a very real and immediate need for the government to act in the national security arena "doesn't necessarily translate into … more IRS agents," he said. "It's not so much trust in government but hope in government that is triumphing," added Bill Schneider, senior political analyst at CNN. The "dirty little secret" of polling, Schneider said, is that "people try to give the right answer" to questions asked by pollsters. Right now, he said, the correct answer is an attitude he characterized as "defiant optimism." In the event of another large-scale terrorist attack, Schneider said, "public support [for government] could very quickly evaporate." Gallup officials noted that while trust in "government in Washington" had been declining for decades prior to Sept. 11, the level of confidence in executive branch agencies has remained fairly steady. In surveys conducted before Sept. 11, 63 percent of Americans told Gallup they had a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the executive branch, while 36 percent said they had little trust or none. Those numbers are virtually unchanged since 1996, and are slightly higher than the previous time the question was asked in 1976.
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