A few days ago, I wrote that the federal government’s meltdown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina might, in the long run, lend the Republican party a boost. In response to this argument, my colleague John Steele Gordon wrote the following:
“Mr. Zeitz notes that the Watergate scandal of the Nixon era—far and away the greatest political scandal since World War II—gave the Democrats only a temporary boost. He argues that Watergate was evidence that government doesn’t work and conservatives always benefit in the long term from such evidence. I disagree. I think Watergate was evidence that while men are frail and always will be, the Constitution is not frail and government did indeed work.”
I think two points need clarifying here:
First Mr. Gordon has not accurately summarized my argument. I did not write that Watergate was “evidence that government doesn’t work.” I wrote that “Watergate shook the American public’s faith in government.” These are two very different ideas.
Second, while it’s Mr. Gordon’s prerogative to disagree with my overall argument, I was not speculating about Watergate’s impact on the public’s faith in government. I was making an observation that is well-grounded in polling data.
Since 1958 the University of Michigan National Election Study has included in its annual election surveys the following question: “How much of the time do you think you can trust government in Washington to do what is right—just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?”
Between 1958 and 1962 the portion of respondents who answered “just about always” or “most of the time” fluctuated between 73 and 76 percent. By 1972 that number dropped to 54 percent, signaling an erosion of public trust stemming from the upheavals of the late 1960s. But in the wake of Watergate the portion of respondents who expressed trust in government dropped to 33 percent, tumbling to a low of 25 percent in the late 1970s. Since then, plenty of factors have helped drive down the public’s trust in government, including the Iran-Contra and Monica Lewinsky scandals, the sharp spike in negative campaign advertising, and more skeptical (and perhaps sensationalistic) media.
The years since 1980 have not been kind to the Democratic party. There are many reasons for this, but on a fundamental level, when the public loses faith in government, the party that promotes public-sector solutions to social problems is bound to face some serious electoral problems.