Between 1958 and 2003, trust in the federal government dropped from 73 percent to 36 percent, the report states. Panelists cited the Watergate scandal as a defining moment in the public's mistrust and periods of economic growth as times when trust increased.
Public trust shot up in 2002, according to polls, with 56 percent of respondents saying they trusted the government just about always or most of the time. Parker associated that high level with the nation's reaction to Sept. 11.
Survey data suggest partisanship plays a major role in deciding a person's level of trust. "The public is deeply divided over economic and political values," Parker said. "The proper role for the federal government is divided at party lines."
In 1998, 48 percent of Democrats said they trusted the government, according to the report, while 33 percent of Republicans said the same. In 2003, 27 percent of Democrats said they trusted the government, compared to 53 percent of Republicans.
The panelists focused more on the role of political campaigns, negative media coverage and "getting out the vote" than the actual work of government. They said the public's perception of the media focus on negative campaigns, rather than a focus on good work in government, is partly responsible for the attitude of mistrust.
Panelists said the public's perception of federal workers such as forest rangers and mail carriers is much more positive [than its perception of the federal government itself. And when pollsters ask, "Do you trust the federal government" rather than just "Do you trust the government," results are more positive. "When you personalize it, people tend to trust it more," Parker said.
David Skaggs, executive director for the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Council for Excellence,, said the importance of the public's trust cannot be exaggerated: "It's the clue that holds things together."
He said emphasis on educating young people on the role and purpose of government is crucial if the public's "misunderstanding" is to be reversed. "I think in a generation we will have a population more understanding of the purpose of the federal government," He said.
Panelist Malia Lazu, a 26-year-old presidential candidate on the American Candidate television show, a Showtime Network reality series on 10 relatively unknown candidates for president, said she is attempting to sell the idea of government to young people who want to see themselves represented there. She bemoaned the fact that 70 percent of young people are not voting, but said that she sees this changing.
"When we have people like P. Diddy and Russell Simmons [encouraging people to get involved in the political process], who actually have more clout than elected officials, it's almost making voting cool," Lazu said. "I learned more from Schoolhouse Rock than my social studies classes, when I attended them."
Patricia McGinnis, president of the Council for Excellence, said there is a need for a "healthy balance of trust and skepticism" toward government. "If people begin to feel more ownership of their government … we will have by definition a better balance of skepticism and trust."
Meanwhile, a lack of trust in government is ingrained in the fabric of American history, according to panelist William Galston, interim dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. He said The Federalist Papers suggest that the federal government should be built on the basis of mistrust, but people are turned away from government if the focus is on conflict.
While many of the panelists pointed fingers at the media for the public's lack of trust, panelist Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, said it is important for the media to act as a watchdog. "We are going to be the messenger of news," she said, "that is sometimes not positive."