Americans don’t believe in much of anything — and why that’s a terrible thing for politics

June 19, 2013

People no longer trust their government, their media or much of anything else to do the right thing.

This is America. AP photo.
This is America. AP photo.

That lack of confidence, which has accelerated in the last decade or so, is a major (and often overlooked) factor in the current political morass in which the country finds itself -- deeply divided along partisan lines without anything even close to objective force able to referee us through the mess.

The numbers are stark.  In a Gallup poll released earlier this month, only three out of 16 institutions -- the military, small business and the police -- attracted majority support when people were asked whether they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in them.

Many of the institutions most directly tied to politics score the lowest.

Take Congress, which is at its historical nadir when it comes to the public's confidence.


Newspapers aren't in all that much better shape. More than one in three people expressed confidence in newspapers in 2000; just 23 percent say the same today.
Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 10.53.30 AM

Ditto TV news, which has dropped from 35 percent confidence in 2003 to a meager 23 percent today.
Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 10.55.28 AM

And this Pew chart on broad perceptions of the media is perhaps the most striking.
Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 12.08.59 PM

Even the Supreme Court has seen its standing with the American public erode over the past 15 or so years.

Image courtesy of Pew
Image courtesy of Pew

What's the upshot for politics of this faltering confidence in these sorts of "pillar" institutions on which American society was built?

The simplest answer is that there are no more trusted referees.  Everyone of them is viewed suspiciously and their motives for acting tend to be regarded through a cynical lens.

What that suspicion and cynicism produce is a huddling effect among partisans. Convinced that the honest brokers simply don't exist, they tend to seek political sustenance from those who affirm their points of view. They watch the same TV shows, listen to the same radio stations, shop at the same places and live in the same neighborhoods as people who believe like they do.  Interactions with people with which they disagree  and entities like Congress or the news media dwindle.

Among people loosely or not-at-all aligned with a major political party, the erosion of confidence in institutions leads to a sort of throwing up of the hands and a disinterest, broadly, in what government and politics can (or will do) in their lives.  Why care about Congress if you don't trust in their motives? Same goes for the news industry.

The declining belief in institutions is -- surprise, surprise --  a very difficult reality with which politicians (and the broader world of government) have to grapple. How do you get people to vote for you who simply don't believe you know or want to do the right thing for the country?  How do you get people to read you if they think you are pushing an agenda? How do you get the public to follow your legal decisions if they are skeptical of why you made it?

We -- and by that I mean the political-media complex -- haven't happened on an answer. One intriguing counter-narrative to the broad distrust in national institutions though is that people tend to still trust/have confidence in their local politicians and local news outlets. There's a kernel of an answer (or at least some hope) there -- that the suspicion/cynicism isn't pervasive and, the closer people are to an institution, the more likely they are to express some confidence in it.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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