A Lot of 'Distrust in Everything' Going Around

01/14/2010 04:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Watching a clip of Glenn Beck interviewing Sarah Palin, Andrew Sullivan catches this comment from Beck: "I don't know yet if [Palin's] strong enough, if she's well-enough advised, or if she knows she can no longer trust anyone." Sullivan goes on to comment that "distrust of everything in politics, of every politician, of the 'system' that has been co-opted by mysterious and menacing elites, and a sense of total beleaguerment in the modern world" has become a familiar theme from "the far right."

For what it's worth, "distrust of everything" was also a prominent theme of a briefing I attended this morning on the new Allstate/National Journal poll. As my colleague Ron Brownstein put it this morning, in an economy where they are "more directly exposed to financial risk than earlier generations," Americans "don't have much confidence that any institution, government, business or the financial sector is doing much right now to help them" deal with that risk.

"As the recession has grown more prolonged," he added, "this alienation from institutions has only deepened and hardened." In follow-up interviews he conducted with survey respondents, Brownstein found "more of an edge of fear, even desperation. A sense of this economic weight settling on people and and being uncertain when the cloud is going to lift." (I've embedded the full video of the presentations below -- Brownstein's comments are at 9:55, the presentation by FD pollster Ed Reilly begins at 13:30).

The data that Brownstein had in mind came from a set of questions that asked respondents to report how much trust they have in a series of people and institutions "to help you manage the financial risks in your life." Most expressed "a lot" of trust in themselves (74%) and their spouse or family members (64%) but others ranked much lower:

Just 15 percent say they have "a lot" of trust in financial advisers to help them cope with financial risk. Labor unions ranked next in trustworthiness, at 12 percent.


Fewer than one in 10 express "a lot" of confidence in national banks, corporations, or the federal government. Strikingly, about half of those polled say they have no trust in any of those three institutions to help them. "These government plans aren't working out, and these corporations are using the government to their benefit," insisted Scott Holland, whose timber business in Garner, N.C., is bankrupt. "I really don't trust anybody at this point."

The flip side of this distrust is a sense that while Wall Street has benefited from government efforts to jump start the economy, ordinary people have seen little benefit:

At the root of the dissatisfaction crackling through the survey is the widespread belief that government's response to the economic crisis mostly benefited affluent individuals and powerful business and financial institutions--the very groups that many respondents blame for the upheaval. "There weren't enough consequences on some of the people who were part of the demise of the banks," said William Fields, a retired engineer and political independent from Villa Hills, Ky.


Who has "benefited most" from "the actions the federal government has taken to respond to the financial crisis over the last 12 months?" Three-quarters of those polled say it has been Big Business or the rich. Forty percent picked banks and investment companies, with another 20 percent identifying major corporations and 16 percent choosing wealthy individuals. Just 9 percent contend that the middle class has been the principal beneficiary, and 8 percent say that the poor have benefited most. African-Americans are more likely than whites to see middle- or lower-income families as the major beneficiaries. But in all demographic groups, the sense is widespread that over the past year most of the jam was placed on the top shelf, to paraphrase Texas populist Jim Hightower.

The survey also asked what "large financial corporations" could do to "increase the trust you have in them." The proposal that drew the most favorable response, by far, was "paying back the bailout money they received from the federal government as soon a possible." More than half (59%) said that would increase their trust "a lot," 28% said it would increase it "some" and only 11% said "not at all.".

An audience member asked about a tax increase on financial institutions proposed today by President Obama to help defray the costs of the financial bailout. Pollster Reilly responded (at 57:55 in the video) that the measure is "obviously very much aligned with where public opinion is" and that "in order to maintain any kind of a consensus moving forward politically, they have to demonstrate to these institutions that benefited from government assistance during the last year, that a fair deal has been struck and that they are paying back."

So responding to a sense of "distrust of everything in politics" is not just the province of the far right. It is a reaction to public opinion across the board.

[Special thanks to the National Journal's Ryan Morris and Reuben Dalke for sharing their beautiful graphics above that will appear in the print edition of the magazine this week].