Americans' trust in the federal government has been in a decades long decline. According to Pew Research polling data, in 1964 77 percent of Americans reported that they trusted the federal government to do what is right "just about always" or "most of the time." In April 2021, less than a quarter of Americans shared that trust.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's confused performance during the COVID-19 pandemic won't do anything to buck that trend.
Recent research conducted by the RAND Corporation showed that "Public trust in the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has fallen during the coronavirus pandemic." The think tank noted, "Surveys done among a representative group of Americans in May and October of 2020 show about a 10% decline in trust of the CDC over that period." Moreover, "Declines in trust in the CDC were widely observed across groups," including among those who intended to vote for Joe Biden.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that confidence in the CDC dropped 16 percent from April 2020 to September 2020. Again, this drop was observed across the political spectrum, including a 12 percent decrease in trust among Democrats.
Polling conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in early 2021 came to a similar finding, but one that also suggests the reasons for declining trust in public health officials extends beyond their response to COVID-19. The group explained, "The public's rating of the nation's public health system... [has] changed over time, with positive ratings of the public health system declining from 43% to 34% from 2009 to 2021." Over that same time period, the CDC's job performance rating also dropped significantly.
It is notable that this decrease in public esteem, in addition to occurring in part during the COVID-19 era, corresponded with the public health field's expanding foray into a host of non-health-related and politically-charged topics. The introduction to the Harvard study acknowledged,
In the United States, over the past several decades, the field of public health has moved away from focusing on infectious disease control and now encompasses a much wider range of issues such as the environment and climate change, injury prevention, racism, healthy housing, and reducing drug and alcohol abuse.
Call it mission creep, the bureaucratic imperative, greed, or a function of ideology, but it is clear that the CDC and public health officials are seeking to exert control over a greater number of people in a larger and increasingly tenuous array of circumstances.
Further, it is hard to escape the notion that this is a partisan project. A 2018 survey of members of the Society for Epidemiologic Research, which bills itself as "the oldest and largest organization of epidemiologists," found that nearly three-quarters identify as "liberal/left-leaning." A mere 4.4 percent identify as "conservative/right-leaning."
There is some evidence to suggest that CDC and public health officials' political games are part of what's diminishing public trust. In the Kaiser survey, 42 percent of respondents reported that the CDC pays too much attention to politics "when reviewing and approving treatments for coronavirus/issuing guidelines and recommendations related to coronavirus…" The Rand study concluded that the problem is severe enough that the CDC should take active steps to "rebuild trust and depoliticize" its image.
Moreover, it is clear what the American public wants their public health agencies focused on. The Harvard study asked respondents,
When you think of the following issues, would you consider each of the following to be one of the main responsibilities for public health agencies, or not?
Topping the list were actual public health issues such as, "controlling the spread of infectious diseases," "providing vaccines," and "reducing infant mortality and preterm birth." Out of the 33 issues provided, "preventing violence and deaths from guns" ranked 31, with a minority considering it a public health issue at all. The firearm issue ranked just behind "racism" and just ahead of "climate change."
In the wake of its haphazard response to an actual infectious disease and waning credibility, one might expect the CDC to exhibit a modicum of humility. However, even with its pandemic mission incomplete, the CDC appears intent on wasting what's left of its diminished political capital to attack law-abiding gun owners.
In late August, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky granted CNN an interview to announce the agency's plans to target gun owners. Walensky said of firearms, "I swore to the President and to this country that I would protect your health. This is clearly one of those moments, one of those issues that is harming America's health."
Perhaps foreshadowing a CDC focus on gun confiscation orders, sometimes termed "Red Flag" or emergency risk protection orders, Walensky noted, "The firearm injury is probably the most distal part of what happens. It is the end event. What are the 10, 12, 15 things where we could have intervened before that singular event?"
Mirroring anti-gun organizations’ messaging playbooks, Walensky was careful to disguise her effort in palatable terminology. The director told CNN, "Generally, the word gun, for those who are worried about research in this area, is followed by the word control, and that's not what I want to do here... I'm not here about gun control. I'm here about preventing gun violence and gun death."
As with so much of the intellectually exhausted anti-gun campaign, longtime gun rights supporters have seen this all before.
Riding high after their successful campaign to demonize tobacco users, in the 1980s and 1990s many in the public health community shifted their attention to gun owners. The CDC and its National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) played a significant role in this effort by supporting biased and unsound research and advocating for severe gun control measures.
A 1993 CDC report titled “Injury Control in the 1990s: A National Plan for Action” advocated for may-issue handgun licensing, “a registry of all gun purchases,” and to make “possession of unregistered handguns a criminal offense.”
In 1994, NCIPC Director Mark Rosenberg told the Washington Post that guns needed to be considered just like cigarettes: “dirty, deadly, and banned.”
In 1995, Rosenberg and NCIPC Division of Violence Prevention Director James Mercy participated in the Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan (HELP) gun control conference alongside Sarah and Jim Brady of Handgun Control, Inc. (now Brady). The group’s organizer described its mission as employing a “public health model to work toward changing society’s attitude toward guns so that it becomes socially unacceptable for private citizens to have handguns.”
Rosenberg also served as an advisor to CeaseFire, an anti-gun public relations campaign. CeaseFire’s materials explained that its purpose was to “promote handgun-free homes.” In 1996, Mercy stated, “What we need to try and do is to find a socially acceptable form of gun control.”
The CDC-funded Spring 1995 edition of the Trauma Foundation’s Injury Prevention Network Newsletter focused entirely on gun control. The publication contained a section titled “What Advocates Can Do.” Here, the authors implored readers to “Put gun control on the agenda of your civic or professional organization,” and, “Organize a picket at gun manufacturing sites…”
Delving into specific policy proposals, the newsletter advocated:
Make your support for federal, state, and local gun laws known to your representatives. This may include:
- opposing repeal of the assault weapons ban;
- maintaining support for the Brady Law;
- restricting ammunition availability by caliber and quantity;
- increasing enforcement of federal firearms laws;
- maintaining restrictions on issuance of concealed weapons permits;
- removing state preemption language to allow cities and counties to regulate firearms.
Recognizing that Americans should not be forced to fund the CDC’s anti-gun political advocacy, Congress adopted the Dickey Amendment in 1996. Contrary to the protestations of public health officials, the amendment did not bar the federal government from conducting firearms-related research. Rather, the amendment made clear that public funds could not be used “in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.”
As evidenced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rebuke of the CDC’s willfully illegal eviction moratorium, the agency appears to believe it can ignore the law. Time will tell if the CDC intends to employ a similar disregard to federal funding restraints. Given the agency’s lackluster performance on COVID-19 and declining public trust, CDC should get back to basics by following the law and confronting the pandemic.