A skepticism about government and its abilities has always been a key component of American political culture. From the founding of the republic, Americans worried about excessive governmental power, choosing instead to put their faith in individuals and private groups. French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, pointed out that Americans are far more likely than other peoples to join together to solve a problem in his two-volume book Democracy in America (1835, 1840).
Many people have seen and continue to see the government as a necessary evil, something that is not good in itself but is needed to protect people. James Madison, writing in Federalist Paper No. 51 (1787), stated that government is only needed because people sometimes mistreat one another and act in their own self-interest to the detriment of others. Since the 1960s, opinion of government has deteriorated even further. Political cynicism has become common, and Americans generally no longer believe in the government’s ability to effect change.
Recent wars and governmental scandals have heightened American mistrust of government. In the 1960s, many people became disillusioned with the government during the Vietnam War. Likewise, in 1974, President Richard Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal only heightened Americans’ suspicion of government. In 1986, the Iran-Contra scandal tarnished President Ronald Reagan’s popularity, and some Republicans never forgave President George H. W. Bush for reneging on the “no new taxes” pledge he made in 1988. Likewise, President Bill Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent impeachment in 1998 damaged his presidency. As a result of these events, the number of Americans who trust the federal government has steadily declined since the 1960s.
Political efficacy is the belief that one’s actions can make a difference in government and that the government listens to normal, everyday people. One sign of American mistrust of government is a decline in feelings of political efficacy over the last few decades. Many Americans feel that the government only listens to special interests, not to average citizens. Some Americans feel such a lack of political efficacy that they do not bother voting or participating in politics in any way.
Many Americans do not know much about their government and are unable to name their representatives in Congress or even key figures in their local governments. For some people, government does not seem to play a major role in their lives, so they do not pay much attention to politics. Others complain about the difficulty involved in learning about the issues and their representatives, particularly state and local representatives. A growing number of people also see the news as biased and thus do not trust what they see on television or read in the newspapers.
According to most theories about democracies, citizens need to be knowledgeable about politics in order to make wise choices. Some argue that because Americans do not know much about politics, they make bad political decisions, which, in turn, leads to political apathy. Others argue that political ignorance does not have such a negative effect because citizens spend their time focusing on issues or hobbies that matter more to them and are thus much happier citizens.