Americans have not lost hope in society despite all the bad news out there. The Gallup polling organization’s annual update on public confidence in institutions, published last month, is a useful snapshot of the United States as the people view it. This picture shows a country quite different from what is portrayed through the lens of the mass media or the entertainment industry. The most well regarded institutions are the military, small business, the police and organized religion. Popular culture often demeans, ignores or stigmatizes these organizations, but most Americans consider them the bedrock of society.
Fully 82 percent expressed “a great deal” or “a lot” of confidence in the military. This has risen from 69 percent in 2007 and is tied with its 2003 ranking after the outbreak of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The military’s only higher score was 85 percent in 1991 after the first Gulf war. The military is the only institution to have scored in the 80 percent range in the 35-year history of the series. This high regard is especially impressive given negative press coverage of the military during wartime.
Confidence in the presidency rose as expected after the second-term collapse of support for President George W. Bush, which dropped from 44 percent in 2005 to 26 percent in 2008. At 51 percent, President Obama is well above President Bill Clinton’s 43 percent in his first year and slightly above Mr. Bush’s 48 percent, but far from the 72 percent scored by George H.W. Bush in 1991, the first year the question was asked.
At the low end of the scale are newspapers, television news, banks, organized labor, health-maintenance organizations (HMOs), Congress and big business. News organizations average 24 percent, which continues a long slide from respectability. This is something that the industry might want to take into account when seeking ways to stave off institutional decline. The problem might be the message and not the medium. Confidence in banks and big business has understandably declined, given the economic crisis. Confidence in HMOs has actually risen, from 13 percent to 18 percent, although this is hardly a strong endorsement.
The record of the Pelosi Congress has been dismal, with a three-year average public confidence rating of 14 percent. In 2008, Congress was rated at 12 percent, which was the lowest score for any institution since the survey began. The latest poll shows Congress at 17 percent, a slight improvement but still below the 19 percent that the Congress scored in 2006 when power changed hands to the Democrats, or the 19 percent in 1994 when the Republicans took power. If these abysmal numbers hold into 2010, the midterm elections could make it a rough year for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.