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Watergate ushered in ‘new era’ of political distrust and the US has still not recovered: report

Former Republican Presidents Donald Trump and Richard Nixon in the Oval Office.

Saul Loeb/AFP and Tom Middlemiss/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

  • A new study from the Pew Research Center found public trust in the US government is near historic lows.
  • The decline began around the time of Watergate and has not recovered to pre-Nixon high levels of trust.
  • A historian told The Washington Post “we entered a new era” after Nixon’s impeachment and resignation.

Fifty years ago this week, the Watergate scandal marked the beginning of a downturn in the public’s faith in the United States government — which hasn’t recovered in the half century since, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. 

“It’s a hugely important historic moment,” Julian Zelizer, a historian and professor at Princeton University, told The Washington Post. “And we entered a new era when it was over.”

Along with the Vietnam war, the 1972 break-in at the Watergate Hotel — and former president Richard Nixon’s subsequent impeachment and resignation in 1974 — signaled a shift in political transparency and Congressional operations that created a more adversarial relationship between the public and the government.  

Public trust in the government, measured by the percentage of people who say they trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time,” averaged approximately 62% in 1968 prior to Nixon taking office, according to the Pew Research Center study.

After Nixon left office, that number was 36%.

Since then, the study indicates, public trust in the government has fallen to its current average of 20%. While trust in the government briefly spiked to 54% following the 9/11 attack on New York, the downward trend has remained consistent for nearly 50 years. 

“The trust has never really rebounded to the pre-Watergate levels,” Joycelyn Kiley, Pew’s associate director of research, told The Washington Post.

Trust in the government was consistently at its lowest since during the Trump administration, averaging 17-19% of Americans who believed the country’s leaders would do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.”

Under president Joe Biden, trust has risen to 20-24%. 

“The Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate … fundamentally rewrote the relationship between the American people and their government,” Garrett M. Graff, author of the book “Watergate: A New History,” told The Washington Post, “and caused a collapse in the public’s faith in those institutions that our nation’s leaders are still struggling with today.”

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