Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Law and Crime

Government Is the Most Important Problem for Americans

“Misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.”

Key points

  • Americans believe government is a bigger problem than the economy, inflation, or COVID-19.
  • Until 2012 Americans said the economy was the biggest problem.
  • Psychology research suggests effective ways to improve government.
  • Voters' beliefs about power may propel government corruption.
Source: GALLUP Poll
Americans say "Government" is the country's biggest problem.
Source: GALLUP Poll

In a December 13, 2022, Gallup Poll, Americans again ranked “Government” as the most important problem facing the country.

In all but one year since 2013, Americans have said “Government” is the country’s most important problem–bigger than inflation or the economy. Americans cited a broad range of reasons for their choice: the President, Congress, party politics, and gridlock. Only in 2020 did COVID-19 take the lead.

This is significant because dissatisfaction with the government did not emerge in recent history as one of the top issues facing the nation until 2012. From 2008 through 2012, the economy was most often named as the top problem in the U.S. For nearly a decade, Americans have said the country’s biggest problem is not “what” (the economy) but “who” (their representatives).

This same “who” focus on the actions of others showed up as Congressman George Santos’ fabrications about his identity and achievements became mainstream knowledge. People asked, “Why didn’t the press and media fact-check when Santos was on the campaign trail?” With Santos, the problem is not only “Government” and this particular Congressman but also the view that the "Fourth Estate” did not do its job.

Whose job is it anyway?

Government crime-stopper Lincoln Steffens, who wrote prolifically early last century about government and corporate abuses, spoke bluntly on the question of “who.” Although he was a journalist in the muckraking tradition, he placed the responsibility for government squarely in the hands of citizens, “The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.”

As national newspapers find more information about Santos’ failings, it looks like New Yorkers appear to have decided that having an honest representative overrides other concerns. Polling by the Siena College Research Institute in January 2023 shows that Santos’ flamboyant and frequent lies are not acceptable to 78 percent of his constituents, including 71 percent of his own party members.

New Yorkers have said “enough” and want better representation, but how do they avoid electing another Santos? Psychologists have joined economists to research and suggest the most effective deterrents to corruption. Across the country, Californians are also dealing with dishonest public servants. The February 1, 2023 blog post, “California Cannabis Legalization Stirs Government Crime Spree,” lists three actions psychologists have found to be effective ways to evaluate candidates and hold to account those who are already in office. They suggest:

  1. Trust your eyes and compare notes with others.
  2. Wise up to weasel words, aka rationalization.
  3. Show up–review and report.

Psychologists have made other findings, directly tying voters' views to whether their public servants are enriching themselves or serving the public trust. The fourth suggestion follows.

4. Who do you serve? Wang and Sun (2016) identified two different views of power. Some people view power as a means to enrich themselves, and some as a means to serve others. Manzetti and Wilson (2007) found that voters whose view of power is self-centered are more likely to engage in self-interested behavior and be tolerant of corruption, especially the corrupt behavior of high-ranking individuals.

Manzetti and Wilson found that voters who expect rewards from those they elect are likely to overlook corrupt behavior. They pointed out that in countries with weak government institutions, citizens support corrupt governments because they expect to receive tangible benefits from corrupt leaders.

When voters believe that power should be used to benefit themselves and choose candidates with the same view of power, their public servants are more likely to be self-serving and tolerant of corruption.

Democratic governance is predicated on public servants who serve the public trust. Representatives are elected as stewards of public funds to ensure safety, security, infrastructure, and even happiness. That integrity, or lack thereof, reflects back on voters. A vote for candidates whose view of power is other-focused makes corruption less likely.

More from Debbie Peterson
More from Psychology Today