Over at the Monkey Cage, John Sides has another of a series of excellent posts about trust in government. He shows, once again, that pretty much everything that people say about trust in government is wrong. If you're tempted to think that survey questions about trust in government yield important answers, he has the evidence that should convince you. Or, you can just take my word for it:
"Trust in Government" survey questions don't work. They don't measure what we want them to measure...some sort of general sense of whether people think the government works, or something like that. Instead, the questions tap into people's feelings about the economy and the president. As far as I know (and I haven't read the literature on this for some time, but everything Sides says is consistent with what I knew about it from back then), the answers to "trust in government" questions don't actually tell us anything at all, not once we know about how the economy is doing and presidential approval ratings (which are partially, but not entirely, caused by the economy). It may be that people don't actually distinguish between the president and the government in general; it may be something else; but really, who cares? All non-specialists need to know is that the questions don't tell us anything. My suggestion is that any time anyone relies on survey results about trust in government, that you just run the other way; you're not going to learn anything from whatever it is they are trying to say.