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Americans Don’t Trust Their Institutions Anymore

We live in interesting times, but I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to be alive for the dawn of politics, for our first encounters with one another when we started to make rules that would help hunting and trading and fishing and fornicating and building happen smoothly. I wonder what it would have been like to be there for the birth of our first institutions, “a custom, practice, or law that is accepted and used by many people,” as Merriam-Webster would have it. Marriage, government, religion, banks — these are the great sandstone blocks of rule and repetition upon which towering civilizations are built.

And yet in the year 2016, most members of the American civilization don’t trust that the building blocks are sound. According to Gallup, Americans’ average confidence in 14 institutions is at only 32 percent. It is perhaps no coincidence that the country just elected Donald Trump to be president, choosing a Washington outsider with no experience in politics who ran on a platform of basically doing everything differently from how it’s being done now.

Trump’s victory is due to many factors, but his campaign messaging was undeniably in tune with a note of fundamental disillusionment that has been played by the American public for a decade. Starting around 2007, confidence in institutions cratered, due in no small part to the worldwide financial crisis. In 2006, 49 percent of Americans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in banks. By the next year it was only 41 percent, and in 2016 that number is a mere 27 percent.

Trump’s vows to eschew the interests of corporate America were nestled beside his feeding of an already-there distrust of media. When Gallup first asked Americans about their trust of newspapers in 1973, 39 percent said they had a great deal of trust in them and by 1979, that number reached a high of 51 percent. In 2000, trust was at 37 percent, but by 2005, in the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and following revelations that Saddam Hussein had had no weapons of mass destruction, trust was at 28 percent. The numbers have mostly slid since then, and in 2016, only 20 percent of Americans said they trust newspapers. Trust in television news has charted much the same course, and it fares only slightly better in 2016, with 21 percent trust.


For conservatives, Trump’s messaging of an election being rigged in part by a liberal-leaning media rang especially true. Back in March, I wrote about Trump’s rise and talked to Matt Mayer, who runs Opportunity Ohio, a conservative think tank based in Dublin, Ohio. He traced the rise of conservative news sites such as Free Republic and TheBlaze to Bush-era coverage of politics.

“I think on the right we’ve been ignoring the mainstream media for years,” Mayer said. “I think the real break was Rathergate. The view was that Dan Rather truly tried to alter the election by hitting Bush with that National Guard stuff, and I think that’s when the right finally said, ‘That’s it.’”

But it’s not just media and finance that have come up short lately in the American public’s eyes. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote in 1975: “The times are out of joint/But I incline as much to rosary beads/As to the jottings and analyses/Of politicians and newspapermen/Who’ve scribbled down the long campaign.” These days, the inclination to rosary beads is far less likely in America following a turbulent election season; only 41 percent of Americans say they trust organized religion, down from 52 percent in 2006 and from 65 percent in 1973, when the question was first asked.

The erosion of trust does not stop with God, bankers, or journalists. A 2015 Pew study found that only 19 percent of Americans trust the federal government always or most of the time. We as a country have less faith in the medical system than we once did — trust was at 80 percent in 1973, and in 2016 it is 39 percent. Pew found more trust from Americans in medicine than Gallup did — 84 percent said they had at least a “fair” amount of trust in medical scientists — but trust in scientific findings has taken on a political tinge. A Pew study released in October found that only 15 percent of conservative Republicans thought that climate scientists could be trusted to give accurate information on the causes of climate change, while 70 percent of liberal Democrats trusted them. Thirty-two percent of moderate Republicans and 45 percent of moderate Democrats felt the same way.

The causes of such systemic distrust of our systems are various. Some are unknowable. But the sentiment is real and at this point, long-standing. Trump did not so much conjure a dark view of America’s direction as tap into reserves that have lain deep and been sporadically voiced, sometimes so outside institutional confines as to be ignored. What remains to be seen now is whether the election of a man promising wholesale change will restore any faith.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.