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Americans lack trust in major institutions

WASHINGTON — Glum and distrusting, a majority of Americans today are very confident in — nobody.

Of what confidence there is in institutions, the military and small business are at the top in an Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll released Thursday. But even they get very-confident or better ratings from well under half the people.

Blogs, banks and Congress get the most distrust.

What would people change if they were in charge? The poll found growing sentiment for legal protections for same-sex couples, with 58 percent saying they should have the same government benefits as married heterosexuals and nearly as many backing federal recognition of gay marriage. Respondents overwhelmingly opposed a stronger federal hand in two other areas: enhancing presidential powers to bolster the economy and requiring people to buy health insurance, as this year's health care overhaul law does.

Out of 18 fixtures on the American scene, none won the strong faith of even half the country. The military did best with 43 percent saying they are extremely or very confident in it, and small business and science were the only others to garner solid trust from at least 3 in 10 people.

On the flip side, 54 percent said they have little or no confidence in blogs and other citizen media, 52 percent said the same about banks and financial firms and 49 percent said so about Congress.

The survey, conducted last month, conforms with others detecting a general glumness as this fall's congressional elections approach. While analysts say the discontent is largely fed by the prolonged economic downturn, the AP-NCC poll suggests a broader angst, with public confidence lagging in many of society's pillars.

"Does anybody have common sense anymore?" said Rosanne Favaloro, 53, of Lebanon, Pa. "Is anybody worried about the middle-class family anymore? I wonder."

Asked about their trust in people running major institutions, 39 percent said they are extremely or very confident in small and local business leaders, close to the military's mark. Then came the scientific community at 30 percent. Organized religion was next at 18 percent.

On the other extreme, about one in four said they have absolutely no confidence in Congress, banks, the federal government, blogs and organized labor.

Republicans most trust the military, followed by small business and religion. Democrats prefer science, small business, then the military. Just one in five Republicans expressed strong confidence in science, about the same proportion of Democrats who said so about religion.

Only 10 percent of Republicans expressed strong confidence in state governments, despite frequent GOP demands that Washington cede more power to the states.

Just 10 percent of Democrats voiced strong trust in Congress, even though their party controls it.

The print and broadcast media were strongly trusted by just 13 percent, only slightly more than the 8 percent with faith in blogs. Those under age 30 were far likelier than older people to voice confidence in what they read.

Other polls have shown a steady decline in recent years in the confidence that people have in major institutions.

The new survey found a souring sense of how well the government is meeting six broad goals set by the preamble to the Constitution.

The government got positive scores in three areas, though each had dropped since the 2008 AP-NCC poll: making sure that people can pursue happiness, that they feel safe and free and that they are shielded from foreign and domestic threats.

But most said the government is doing a poor job of helping everyone and not just special interests. They were about evenly split over whether the government is making America a better place and making sure all are treated equally.

For five of the six goals, fewer said the government is doing a very good job than said so in 2008, while the number saying it is doing very poorly remained stable or grew worse in every case. Democrats, minorities and people under age 30 generally have brighter views.

"Nothing is guaranteed, but all that hope that I can be more than my parents are is still there," said Brian Durham, 20, a college student in Bloomington, Ind.

Three-fourths called the Constitution enduring and not outdated. Most said that laws should be followed even when there is a short-term public safety risk, and that a minority's rights should be protected from pure majority rule.

"Americans appear to be saying that our institutions are getting it wrong, but these values remain increasingly important," said David Eisner, the constitution center's chief executive officer.

Most also said that judges should interpret laws broadly and that Supreme Court justices' decisions are influenced by their political views.

The National Constitution Center is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that operates a Philadelphia museum and other educational programs about the Constitution.

The AP-NCC Poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Aug. 11-16, using landline and cell phone interviews with 1,007 randomly chosen adults. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.