You may have heard the odd factoid that faith in government drastically increased immediately after 9/11. Impossible, you say? Surely when a great tragedy happens, the organization charged to prevent it will lose credibility, not gain it?

The factoid checks out; there’s an excellent write-up by Gary Langer in Public Perspective. The facts:

There is a long-running survey question that reads:

How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right – just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?

The results of interest:

Survey Date            % Answering "Just About Always" or "Most of the Time"
3/30-4/2, 2000         30%
9/25-9/27, 2001        64%
1/21-1/24, 2002        46%

In short, the percentage of people who did not answer “only some of the time” more than doubled just two weeks after 9/11. About half of the jump faded out by January.

I see this as prime evidence of the public’s irrationality in almost any sense of the term. A striking, well-publicized failure of the federal government leads not to less trust, but to more. Madness. Does trust in GM rise if its cars start spontaneously combusting? If the CEO goes on TV and proclaims a war against spontaneous combustion after the defect becomes obvious?

You could say that 9/11 was not the government’s fault, but that cuts against all actuarial logic. When your car gets hit, your rates go up. Probabilistically speaking, they should. Even if the accident isn’t legally “your fault,” the truth is that you could have done a better job of prevention. In the same way, your can blame your alleged protectors for failing to stop a “surprise attack.” There’s a reason why we call it “Getting caught with your pants down.”

Langer tries to defend the reasonableness of the public’s change of heart. If you probe more deeply, you learn that trust in the government’s policy on social issues is way lower than trust in the government’s policy on the war on terrorism. Admittedly, that’s not as crazy as watching the Twin Towers collapse and thinking “Our Social Security woes are history!”

Still, there is every reason to think that trust in the government’s anti-terrorist efforts shot up after the disaster. (Unfortunately before 9/11, there probably wasn’t any such survey question around). And at risk of repetition, that’s nuts.

But perhaps Langer’s most fascinating finding is the partisan breakdown of the rise in trust. There is a clear pattern: The more conservative you are, the more dramatically your faith in government rose after 9/11. The facts:

Party/Ideology           Trust 3/30-4/2, 2000   Trust 9/25-9/27, 2001
Liberal Democrat         44%                    55%
Moderate Democrat        40%                    67%
Independent              27%                    62%
Moderate Republican      30%                    69%
Conservative Republican  22%                    75%

That’s right. Liberal Democrats only gained 11 percentage points of trust. Conservative Republicans gained 53 percentage points. Egad.

You can bend over backward trying to rationalize this, but it’s a fool’s errand. What went on after 9/11 was a kind of secular religious revival meeting. Instead of “Onward Christian soldiers,” it was “United we stand.” And as Nietzsche says, “‘Faith’ means not wanting to believe what is true.” Nationalist fanaticism correlated strongly with ideological position. So conservative Republicans whooped themselves up into a frenzy of delusional patriotism, while liberal Democrats just half-heartedly sang a few hymns.

In short, the liberal Democrats were closest to the rational response to 9/11 – reduced trust in government. They didn’t quite get there, but I’d still like to give credit where credit is due. Or at least less blame where less blame is due.