McCourtney Institute Mood of the Nation Poll examines public trust in the FBI

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Months of attacks on the FBI are impacting the public’s perception of the Bureau’s 13,000 agents, according to newly-released findings from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Mood of the Nation Poll.

Among Democrats, 67 percent trust the FBI to do what is right “most of the time” or “just about always.” This contrasts with only 39 percent of Republicans surveyed Feb. 5-8. 

These findings are in stark contrast with other polls taken as recently as three years ago that showed high levels of support for the FBI among Democrats and even higher levels among Republicans.

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, a research center in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, created the Mood of the Nation Poll to capture how citizens truly feel about American politics and democracy by asking respondents to elaborate on questions in their own words.

Those open-ended responses illustrate the partisan divide on the FBI.

“The FBI and Democrats working to corrupt the 'Justice' department to fix an election, and no one is yet in jail,” said a 57-year-old Republican woman from Idaho.

More specific questions show that Republican distrust is rooted in the belief that not only the FBI’s leadership, but its rank and file, are corrupted by politics. Only 30 percent of Republicans feel that most FBI agents enforce the law fairly, in contrast with 42 percent of Independents and 68 percent of Democrats.

In contrast, 54 percent of Republicans are of the opinion that FBI agents do not enforce the law fairly, because they are biased against Trump and his agenda.

Distrust in the FBI is highest among Republicans age 45 and older, 60 percent of whom feel that FBI agents are biased against Trump.

“It is especially remarkable that negative views of FBI agents are especially intense among older Republicans,” said Eric Plutzer, professor of political science and the poll’s director. “This generation of American conservatives, all born before 1973, were socialized to see the FBI as the epitome of American law enforcement, and especially tough against perceived threats from the left, not the right.”

The latest poll was in the field just days after the release of a controversial memo from U.S. Rep Devin Nunes that alleges the FBI may have relied on politically motivated or questionable sources to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant on Trump adviser Carter Page.

That memo and its implications for the FBI were on people’s minds when completing the poll.

“Some people in the FBI violated Federal law by using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for political purposes,” said a 35-year-old Republican man from Louisiana.

The distrust expressed about the FBI and its agents appears to be part of a trend toward distrust in American institutions. The media was another frequent target among Republican poll respondents.

“The news agencies are just a bunch of liars,” said a 62-year-old Republican man from California. “The FBI is full of people who are more concerned with agenda than protecting the American people.”

The Mood of the Nation Poll is conducted by Plutzer and Michael Berkman, McCourtney Institute director and professor of political science. Each poll reflects answers provided by a scientifically selected, representative sample of 1,000 adults. Fieldwork is conducted in partnership with YouGov, an online polling organization.

A full report on the latest poll is available on the McCourtney Institute for Democracy website.

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Last Updated February 26, 2018