With a looming federal government shutdown, we've heard a lot about the last time this happened and how Clinton bested Congressional Republicans led by Newt Gingrich. I agree with pundits who say this time is different. Obama is no Clinton, and no one is playing the evil part as well as Gingrich, except maybe Lord Voldemort or Dick Cheney.
But I'm less interested in in who wins the blame game than in how this affects people's attitudes toward government. There are a lot of ways to look at this. In a nod to the Tea Party folks, there's a great poll question asked for many years by USAToday/Gallup: "In your opinion, which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future: big business, big labor, or big government?"
Back in 1999 and 2000, 65 percent pointed at big government. By 2009 that had dropped to 55 percent. No more recent data available from this poll. Big business has gone up as a threat, from 24 percent to 32 percent. Those evil unions? Always around 8 to 10 percent. Again, these data are a bit old, ending in 2009, so we have to read them with some caution.
A different poll looks at whether people think government is doing too much or too little. Asked from 2002 to 2010, there's been little change, easily within the margin of error.
But trust in government is the big one. A democratic government relies on the trust of the governed, it draws on that reservoir of trust (yeah, and cash) in other to operate. Check out the graphic below, drawn from American National Elections Studies data. Other than a few blips up (post 9/11 being the most recent), there is a steady trend toward less trust. If you like, you can flip the chart below and look only at the rise in distrust (see here). What's interesting to note is the steady rise in federal government trust after the 1994 takeover by Republicans (and the budget squabble with Clinton). It's hard to tease out whether this is a function of GOP leadership, Clinton political skill, or the feds just coming off looking better as the Republicans forced a shutdown. I'm leaning toward the latter, though I'd need to go find studies with a detailed analysis. The ultimate point is this -- a shutdown, if it happens, might lead to people realizing how much they depend on the federal government and improve it's reputation among a cynical public. But it's only a theory.