What Happens When Americans Don’t Trust Institutions?
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Americans are feeling uneasy, and it’s hard to blame them. The things they want to change — inflation, COVID-19 case numbers, rising violent crime in some cities — seem more and more intractable. There was one big, abrupt shift in American life at the end of June, when the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion. But that wasn’t a change most Americans wanted.
This sense of dissatisfaction showed up in a recent poll from Gallup, which asked Americans how much confidence they have in various institutions. The survey found that since last June, when Gallup last asked this set of questions, Americans’ confidence in almost every institution has dropped. In the poll, which was conducted before the justices released their decision on abortion but after a draft of the opinion leaked, the biggest shifts were for the presidency, which saw a 15-percentage-point drop, and the Supreme Court, which saw an 11-point drop. But overall, the national mood is sour. Americans’ average confidence in 14 of the institutions that Gallup asked about was only at 27 percent — the lowest point since Gallup began the survey in 1979.
Americans aren’t just cynical about their political institutions. In Gallup’s trends, you can see more and more disillusionment with pretty much every major institution. Some of these shifts are hard to blame on politics — confidence in banks, for instance, fell dramatically during the Great Recession. But experts told me that they’re also the result of increasing partisan polarization and a decades-long effort by the Republican Party to sow distrust in a wide range of government institutions. The COVID-19 pandemic may have also reinforced Americans’ sense that the government won’t be there for them in times of crisis: According to a Monmouth University poll conducted from June 23-27, 57 percent of Americans said that the actions of the federal government over the past six months have hurt their family regarding the issue most important to them, up from 34 percent in July 2021 and 46 percent in December.
This broad loss of faith in the institutions that organize our society is dangerous, experts say — and it may be hard to reverse. “Despite the political polarization, both sides feel like they’re losing,” said Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University. “And populaces and countries that are pessimistic about the future often end up doing really bad things.”
The Supreme Court’s approval rating is dropping | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
The idea that the government doesn’t work for people — and therefore, we should have less of it — can be traced back decades, to the political campaigns of former presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Those messages fed a sense of cynicism that was already growing, according to Amy Fried, a political science professor at the University of Maine who has studied the history of political mistrust. “Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, there are all of these upheavals — Watergate, the Vietnam War, riots, assassinations,” she said. But politicians — mostly Republicans — have since amplified Americans’ doubts by continuing to talk about government overreach and corruption. Former President Donald Trump dialed up these messages, attacking banks, the country’s intelligence agencies and its election system during his campaigns and presidency.
Political allegiances increasingly shape the way Americans view all kinds of institutions, too. There are the obvious ones — Democrats have more confidence in the presidency when a Democrat is in the White House, Republicans have more confidence in Congress when the GOP is in control — but trust in the medical system, organized religion and public schools are all shaped by partisanship too. According to Gallup, between 2021 and 2022, Republicans’ confidence in the military fell from 81 percent to 71 percent — a shift that Drezner said could be due to the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, or to a general sense among some conservative voters that even the military can’t be trusted under a Democratic president. “The culture wars have become so heavily partisan that they now spill over into institutions that previously were thought of as not partisan at all,” he said.
The economic and public health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, may have convinced more Americans that the government simply doesn’t know what it’s doing. Katherine Carman, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, was one of the authors of a 2020 report that examined why Americans trust institutions in the first place. “Competence and honesty — these are really important factors that contribute to trust,” she said. “We ask the government to make and enforce laws and policy for us. So we need them to be truthful about the information they’re providing. And we want them to have the skills and knowledge to actually do those things.”
The political consequences of overturning Roe v. Wade
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans said they generally trusted the government to handle the crisis and share accurate information about it. Their confidence in Trump’s response to the pandemic eroded over the remaining year, but when Biden came into office, approval of his handling of the pandemic was pretty high. Now, though, according to FiveThirtyEight’s approval tracker for presidents' COVID-19 response, 49 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the pandemic and 43 percent disapprove.1 And a Pew Research Center poll from earlier this year found that a declining share of Americans are confident that Biden is able to handle the public health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and that he has good judgment on economic policy, reflecting widespread public concern about rising inflation and a possible recession.
These shifts are happening among Americans of all political stripes, although to different degrees. The Gallup poll found that Democrats’ confidence in the institution of the presidency fell from 69 percent in 2021 to 51 percent this year — an alarming drop among members of Biden’s own party. That tracks, overall, with a broader erosion in Biden’s support among Democrats, many of whom are disappointed about his administration’s lack of policy achievements and increasingly frustrated about rising costs.
The danger, Carman said, is that Americans’ trust in institutions doesn’t just decline — mistrust starts to grow. Her report found that there was already active mistrust of the government and media. “I think that’s particularly worrisome,” she said. “Active distrust means not only do you think they’re not always honest — maybe they lie to you. Maybe they’re trying to hurt you.”
Widespread distrust can be dangerous. If people don’t trust government institutions, they’ll be more likely to believe that elections are untrustworthy too. Drezner said that as distrust increases, people are more likely to act in disruptive or even violent ways, like with the Jan. 6 insurrection. If Americans believe the institutions around them are failing, he said, they “might be tempted to take a risky gamble that puts you back to where you used to be.”
That’s a bleak outlook. But Americans are in a bleak mood. Drezner said that if some of the trends that are sowing deeper distrust turn around — say, the pandemic fades into the background and inflation begins to abate — people might start to feel better about the government too. But for now, they’re not feeling happy about most of the institutions that order society — and that could be bad for democracy.
Other polling bites
- A majority of Americans said the second COVID-19 booster definitely (40 percent) or probably (19 percent) should be available to all adults, according to a YouGov poll conducted Wednesday. This includes 83 percent of Democrats but only 42 percent of Republicans. Views didn’t vary too much by age, although older Americans were more likely to feel strongly that the second booster should be available to more people: 47 percent of those ages 65 and over believed everyone should “definitely” have the option, versus only 34 percent of those between the ages of 18-29. At present, CDC guidelines suggest the second booster for only immunocompromised people 12 and older as well as all adults 50 and older.
- Sixty-three percent of Americans were worried about their individual financial outlook in the short-term future, according to a June 23-27 survey from Navigator Research. White Americans (69 percent) appeared to be the most concerned, although Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders weren’t far behind (64 percent). Meanwhile, a smaller share of Hispanic Americans (51 percent) and Black Americans (44 percent) reported feeling uneasy in this regard. This split among racial and ethnic groups is consistent among Americans when it comes to their overall opinions on the current economy: White Americans (83 percent) expressed the most pessimism about the economy, followed by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (79 percent), Hispanic Americans (68 percent) and Black Americans (61 percent).
- With primaries well underway and an increasing spotlight on November’s midterm elections, just over half of Americans (53 percent) wanted political fundraising emails to count as spam, per a YouGov survey conducted this week. More than Democrats and Republicans, independents drove the result, with 62 percent saying they wanted this sort of email classified as spam.
- Support for the congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection rose over the past month, per research recently published by the Defend Democracy Project, which studied one poll conducted May 13-16 by Politico/Morning Consult and another conducted June 11-19 by Lake Research Partners/Research Collaborative/ASO Communications. Sixty-three percent of Americans were in favor of the hearings in June (shortly after they began), up from 55 percent in May. That increase reflects considerably more support from independents — 53 percent in May versus 73 percent in June. Democratic support for the hearings was 94 percent in June, whereas Republican support was just 30 percent.
- A majority of Democrats (80 percent) said the EPA should have the ability to create environmental protections even if those protections harmed industries, according to a survey from The Economist/YouGov published last week. But that number drops to 48 percent among independents and just 28 percent among Republicans.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,2 38.6 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 56.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -17.7 points). At this time last week, 39.0 percent approved and 56.2 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -17.2 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 40.5 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.6 percent, for a net approval rating of -13.1 points.
In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,3 Republicans currently lead by 1.6 percentage points (44.8 percent to 43.2 percent). A week ago, Republicans led Democrats by 2.1 points (44.8 percent to 42.7 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Republicans by 2.4 points (45.0 percent to 42.7 percent).