Confidence in Major Public Institutions

Gallup put out its semi-regular ratings of the major public institutions. ..and the results are depressing, if not entirely shocking:

There are three institutions — the military, police and small businesses — that a majority of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in. The other 12 institutions all inspire less confidence and, broadly, far less confidence than their historic averages in the Gallup data.

This paragraph, via Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones, is absolutely stunning:

Americans’ confidence in all institutions over the last two years has been the lowest since Gallup began systematic updates of a larger set of institutions in 1993. The average confidence rating of the 14 institutions asked about annually since 1993 — excluding small business, asked annually since 2007 — is 32% this year.

32 percent!

That means that just one in three people have a lot of confidence in 14 of the most bedrock institutions in our society from business to labor to TV to schools to, yes, Congress. (Congress is the institution that is running the farthest behind its historical norms. Don’t act surprised.)

What’s even more remarkable is that not one institution has risen upward in public estimation to fill the void left by the falling faith in others. In short: We’ve lost faith in the institutions that long served as a sort of societal safety net, but we haven’t replaced them with anything. We are, as a country, living without a net.

That feeling — that if you fall there will be nothing and no one to catch you — drives a deep societal anxiety about the country and its future. It’s why you have record numbers of people questioning whether the American dream can still be achieved and expressing deep (and long-held) pessimism about the where the country is headed.

And it’s why politicians — from President Obama on down — have struggled to articulate a positive vision for the future that doesn’t feel totally out of touch with the deep-seated pessimism and anxiety coursing through the electorate.

Here’s Obama from his 2014 State of the Union address:

What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all, the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.

Now, let’s face it:  That belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.

Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by; let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.

And Hillary Clinton from her presidential announcement:

“We’re standing again. But, we all know we’re not yet running the way America should.”

Here’s Marco Rubio’s take on the conundrum:

My parents achieved what came to be known as the American Dream. But now, too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving that dream is still possible: Hard working families living paycheck to paycheck, one unexpected expense away from disaster . . . Young Americans, unable to start a career, a business or a family, because they owe thousands in student loans for degrees that did not lead to jobs . . . And small business owners, left to struggle under the weight of more taxes, more regulations and more government.

Why is this happening in a country that for over two centuries has been defined by equality of opportunity?

Then there’s always the more direct approach favored by Donald Trump:

The challenge for any politician on the ballot in 2016 — particularly those running for president — is to find a way to give people something to latch onto amid all of the chaos that surrounds them. Judging from the Gallup numbers, we are in desperate need of something to believe in.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s