Average confidence across all institutions is at a new low of 27%, compared to nearly 50% in 1979. It’s astounding that only 7% of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress. Only small business (68%) and the military (64%) enjoy the confidence of more than 50% of Americans.
This raises some important questions.
Why the general lack of confidence is America’s institutions — especially the presidency (23%), newspapers (16%), the criminal justice system (14%), big business (14%), television news (11%) and Congress (7%)? Even church/organized religion had only 31% confidence.
Pignanelli: “Things look too bureaucratized, too defensive of and protective of the organization itself. It isn’t good.” — Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal
For decades, calling someone a “Boy Scout” was a snarky compliment of virtue and wholesomeness. (This accolade was never directed at me, for obvious reasons.) But a multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit alleging thousands suffered sexual abuse bankrupted the scouting organization and altered this positive perspective.
This summer, Americans witnessed the video revealing hundreds of well-armed police officers outside a classroom, awaiting instructions for 80 minutes, while fourth graders were slaughtered.
Reports of sexual abuse, and cover-up actions, were made against religious organizations other than the tragedies besetting the Catholic Church.
These are just recent examples of traditional bulwarks in our society that fell into scorn. Their downfall layers over the hyperpartisan sniping in national politics and federal government bloat. Consequently, confidence in even our most iconic institutions is disappearing. The common themes underscoring the distrust are perceptions the interests of an organization are prioritized over customers, adherents, citizens and the vulnerable.
The silver lining in the survey is the respect small business and the military enjoy from most Americans. This demonstrates our nation still prizes entrepreneurism, loyalty, courage, etc. We are not keen on organizations, institutions or companies that ignore these traits.
The solution to this crisis is a commitment to ideals and missions, not the entity itself. Then to be labeled its member (i.e. “Scout”) will be a true compliment.
Webb: Part of the abysmal confidence ratings is attributable to the economy, especially inflation and rising interest rates. Current conditions have a lot of people and small businesses upset and fearful of the future.
However, this trend has been going on for several years, even when the economy was booming, jobs were plentiful and standards of living were rising for most Americans. So it is something that’s pretty deep in the psyche of Americans.
I believe that concentration of power at the federal government level, in giant corporations, in big tech and big social media are a very large part of the confidence deficit. Citizens feel a lack of control. They feel powerless when dealing with these gigantic, bureaucratic institutions. Fraying family life also plays a role. Those are pretty tough obstacles to overcome.
Congress has only itself to blame for its worst-of-the-worst confidence rating. It’s the place where America’s biggest problems go to get buried in dysfunction and partisanship. The news media are a reflection of political partisanship and bias and thus don’t enjoy the confidence of the citizenry.
In general, do Utahns share this disdain toward America’s most important institutions?
Pignanelli: Our local institutions usually perform well and enjoy greater confidence by residents. Utahns are among the most hard-working, ethical and compassionate people on the planet. They have little patience with inefficient behavior, especially “kicking the can.” While we are just not as demonstrative as others, frustration with national organizations exists.
Webb: Utah Foundation recently did a very interesting study on Utah’s “Social Capital Index.” It notes that social scientists affirm a long-term national decline in social capital — “the bonds between people and among networks.” Lack of confidence in major institutions, as outlined in the Gallup study, is a manifestation of the fraying of social capital.
However, the Utah Foundation study showed that in 2021, “Utah had the highest level of social capital in the nation.” Utah ranks well in civic engagement, social trust, community life, family life, social cohesion and a focus on future generations.
So, while Utahns no doubt share national opinions regarding a lack of confidence in major institutions, they are much more likely to have confidence in their neighborhood, community and state institutions.
Can Congress function effectively when only 7% of Americans have confidence in it?
Pignanelli: Americans tend to like their individual congressional representatives but hold distaste for the institution. But this abysmal rating is a new low and should give all concern. If our federal officials cannot foster credence, how can they rally the nation to overcome major problems? Time for a reset.
Webb: Congress (and presidents) have set themselves up for failure by falsely promising that they can solve every problem for every American from cradle to grave. They need to be far more modest and reduce expectations by sending most problems back to the states and communities where they can be addressed close to home, according to local conditions and desires, by mayors, city councils, county leaders, legislatures and governors.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email:email@example.com.
Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.