Public schools? Americans are wary. Organized religion? Increasingly a big “No thanks.” Banks, big businesses, organized labor, technology companies and news media? Not much confidence in the lot of them, according to Gallup polling.
As President Biden enters his second year in office, former President Donald Trump enters his second year of forced retirement and COVID-19 enters its third year of disrupting lives, Americans are questioning institutions in new ways. Meanwhile, academics are scurrying to understand what it all means.
Politicians are sounding the alarm about the deaths of institutions and blaming their political opponents.
Gallup regularly conducts polls on 16 institutions. As of last year, 13 of them had less than 50% of public confidence.
Small businesses and the military remain well-respected, and police squeaked back above 50% after slipping in 2020 — the only institution that saw an increase in confidence last year.
Still, just about every other institution required to keep society operating is struggling, particularly in the government.
Congress has been mired in the single digits or teens for years. The presidency and the Supreme Court don’t crack 40%.
“I think we are at a low point,” said Kevin R. Kosar, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “I think the more the public sees anything in government and the longer it sees it, the gloomier it gets.”
Public health officials worry that the lack of confidence is hurting efforts to control the pandemic. People on the political right have long tuned out the Biden administration’s admonitions, and those on the left are starting to do the same.
Mr. Kosar said climbing out of the confidence gap will be tough because distrust has been on a steady downhill march.
President Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation, 1970s economic troubles and changing politics all helped fuel the decline, he said.
Now, much of the problem can be traced to government nationalization and overpromising and underdelivering on solutions.
“For those people who were over the voting age in 1980 and still alive today, they have experienced the Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football experience,” he said. “So it is no surprise that they are growing more cynical because they have been told that this beautiful thing is going to be around the corner if the right person is elected.”
Changing party power in Washington doesn’t seem to help.
The Pew Research Center says Americans tend to have more faith when their party controls the White House, but those in the party out of power lose confidence.
Black and Hispanic Americans express more trust in government on Mr. Biden’s watch than do White adults. The phenomenon was similar under Presidents Obama and Clinton.
During the Reagan, Bush and Trump eras, “White Americans were substantially more likely than Black Americans to express trust in the federal government,” Pew says.
Gallup’s research also bears out the partisan and minority swings.
News institutions also perform poorly in Gallup’s poll. Just 16% of Americans have confidence in television news; only Congress rates worse. Newspapers do slightly better with a 21% confidence rate.
John Maxwell Hamilton, author of “Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda,” said the shrinking, fragmented press corps has created a vacuum for alternative narratives of the “truth” to take hold and opened the door for administrations to circumvent the news media.
“I don’t think you have to be an expert in intelligence to recognize the value our enemies in several different countries see in just being disruptive,” he said.
Mr. Hamilton, a journalism professor at the Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communication and a global scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said a skeptical public can be healthy for democracy.
“But when you get to the point that you believe everything is made up and almost everything is a lie, then you are willing to believe the most prosperous lies,” he said.
As bad as things are, polling numbers show they have been worse. The average confidence rating for all the institutions Gallup surveys was 33% last year. The number dipped to 31% during Mr. Obama’s second term and reached 32% at one point in George W. Bush’s second term.
Jon Grinspan, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, is optimistic. He said America has bounced back from trials such as the Civil War and the corruption of the late 1800s.
“Living through a partisan American election, one critic wrote in 1894, was like watching two speeding locomotives race across an open plain,” Mr. Grinspan writes in his book “The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915.” “Each bystander felt irresistibly compelled to cheer for one train, to be jubilant when it forges ahead, or mortified if it falls behind. It becomes for the time being his train, his locomotive, his railroad.”
The public complained mightily about the politics but couldn’t look away.
At that time, Americans witnessed some of the closest elections in history. Three presidents were assassinated. Voter turnout was high. The balance of power swung back and forth. The public was engaged and enraged.
Mr. Grinspan said temperaments simmered down toward the turn of the 20th century and politics became more restrained.
The seeds of Progressive Era reforms, including the national income tax, the direct election of senators and women’s suffrage, had been sown.
“Lack of trust is kind of a natural state,” he said. “It is the trust that is unusual, and so they built that and we’ve seen that erode. But that means we can build it again. We’ve seen it in the past. You can build it up over time.
“So, kind of good news for our own era is you can have beneficial reform beginning to take place even as things seem to be getting worse, and it is just a matter of time before they start to kick in,” he said.